Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin & Nicole Walker (Rose Metal Press, 2019), released last week. The co-authors wondered how they, as normal people and writers, might face into the mess of emotions and conundrums regarding climate change, and what might happen if they “stay with the trouble” (as Donna Haraway puts it). They decided to write an alphabetical how-to guide for surviving the Anthropocene, or at least for living within it in ways that acknowledge the beauty and complexity of our time and our fragile/resilient planet. Each author contributes a brief story (or two) on a topic relating to each letter of the alphabet. The stories bring the reader along as the authors sift through their experiences, offering small shards of wisdom while acknowledging how much sand seems to be slipping through their fingers as time and anthropogenic climate change proceed. These accessible stories are sometimes meditative, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always exploring what it means to be human, alive in this immense moment of possibility, tragedy, grief, and hope. Today, David Carlin shares his “V” entry, and last week we posted an excerpt by Nicole Walker.
by David Carlin
There I was sitting outside in my friend’s garden trying to write, imagining the various editors and publishers who might be, if I was lucky, looking over my shoulder to see what the next sentence might be, ready with a small sharp intake of breath or subtle pursing of the lips, when I was distracted by a bird.
At first I thought it was a robin or a wren. It was approximately robin/wren sized and shaped, but the colors were unfamiliar: canary yellow breast and a sweet cream patch across the head against a fuselage of dark brown. It was sitting in the pear tree a few meters from me with a worm in its beak that it was conspicuously not eating. It flitted from branch to branch and flew in arcs around me to the tree above my head, touching down and lifting off again by a small hole in the stone wall of the house as if it wanted to go in, but at the same time wanted to pretend that this was the last thing on its mind. Against the mothy fluttering sound of its flight, it sang out in a regular tone, more beep than cheep. One slow peg of noticing on my part led to another, and I realized the beep-cheeps were in fact one side of a conversation, and they were saying, roughly, “Be patient my little ones, I have to take extra care in feeding you today, as a human sits too close to our nest.”
Except that if the bird (I found out later it was a Great Tit) or, more to the point, the human translator, had not been steeped in the diction and literature of certain classes and eras (in other words, watched too much David Attenborough), it might instead have been saying to its offspring, “Hang on luvvies, don’t fret, I’m on my way.” Or else, or else, or else… If it is hard to translate across cultures, hard for that matter to understand the point of view, not to mention point of audition, point of touch, and all other sensory points on the compass of another human being, how much harder is it to translate a bird’s inner life and intra-ornithological dialogues? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. All I’m trying to say is that a) the bird was speaking in the ways birds do, and b) it was possible for me to infer what it was saying, but any translation of the bird will always be: b(i) a creative leap; b(ii) produced out of all the stories—scientific, picture book, and otherwise—my culture makes available to me; and b(iii) therefore, in some sense, wrong. Wrong, as in not perfect, as in giving it my best shot, as in there is always something lost in translation, but there is always also something gained in a good translation.
I’m lecturing now. Faux-theorizing, quasi-theorizing, or quasi-semi-sub-David Foster Wallace-quasi (double quasi, queasy/quasi)-faux-theorizing via lecturing.
My friend who lives in the stonewalled house asked me what I was working on, while she washed and I dried. She is an old friend from university days who has always prided herself on an intellectual rigor of the stiff and unbending type. No! She would say now, outraged. Not. Stiff. And. Unbending. Rather, and I would prefer very much to speak in complete sentences, thank you very much, she would say. I would say instead that I am precise, logical, and grounded with an education in the literature and the training to know what to do with it. As someone who feels invariably ungrounded, I have learned, but still forget, not to say too much to her about what I’m working on. The words sputtered out in a bedraggled heap and sort of lay there. My friend looked out at the horizon, rubber gloved, and said, “Go on, I’m listening.”
The other side of the birdly conversation was a chorus. And the chorus spake thus: “Hurry up! Hurry up! We are hungry. Me first! Me first!” According to the notes I took. The desperate, or at least very eager, baby birds called and their adult responded, trying to explain about the threatening human sitting too close to the nest, or at least to say: “Don’t give up hope, I haven’t forgotten, I am here for you.”
When you write, you try to make a voice to write in. Sometimes all the voices that you try sound wrong, and you think you will never be able to open your mouth again in writing. Then what usually happens is you read someone else’s writing, and the voice of that writer opens up a small new space for what can be spoken about and how. Writing isn’t speaking, but when you read it in your head it sounds like speaking, or it should do. Or like incantation. Whispering. A thousand different tones. Around and around it goes: the wanting-to-speak, the silencing, the wanting to be heard, the need to listen.
Meanwhile there are birds everywhere asking us to listen; asking us to get out of the way so they can feed their children in peace. Like the Great Tit with its proud yellow sashes, saying: “Look, I’m pretty busy here, as you can hear I have a lot of mouths to feed, so if you are going to stay there please sit still so I know you’re not going to scare me when I land on the opening in the stone wall and crawl inside, worm in mouth. Alright? Thanks.”
Bio: David Carlin is a writer and creative artist based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), and Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), co-author of 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (2019), and the editor, with Francesca Rendle-Short, of an anthology of new Asian and Australian writing, The Near and the Far (2016). His award-winning work includes essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary, and short films; recent projects include the Circus Oz Living Archive and WrICE. He is a professor of creative writing at RMIT University where he co-directs the non/fictionLab.