One of the best things to come out of the Australian Women Writers challenge for me has been exposure to books that I might never have discovered on my own. Recently ANU E Press joined the challenge, tweeting links to (free) e-books by Australian women. Val Plumwood’s The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, is one such book.
Part memoir, part collection of philosophical and eco-feminist essays, The Eye of the Crocodile contains Plumwood’s last pieces of writing – she was working on the draft when she died in 2008. According to authors of the book’s introduction:
Val Plumwood was one [of] the great philosophers, activists, feminists, teachers, and everyday naturalists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries… Her stature as a thinker of power and influence was reflected in the fact that she was included in the 2001 book 50 Key Thinkers on the Environment [edited by Joy Palmer, David Cooper and Peter Blaze Corcoran]… She was not only an influential environmental thinker, whose book Feminism and the mastery of nature has become a classic of environmental philosophy; she was also a women who fearlessly lived life on her own deeply considered terms, often in opposition to prevailing norms. (1)
The first section, which gives the book its title, contains an account of Plumwood’s near-death experience when, during a trip to Kakadu in 1985, she became prey to a large crocodile which death rolled her three times before releasing her. The remaining sections bear out the impact of this experience on her life and thinking. The collection includes a discussion of the movie Babe and a moving account of her friendship with – and grief over the death of – a wild wombat named Birubi. The third, most philosophical, section contains essays on radical vegetarianism and “a food-based approach to death”.
The coupling together of “pieces” rather than a unified work means the writing styles of The Eye of the Crocodile are varied. Passages of beauty and emotional power sit alongside some heavy-weight philosophical pondering. Plumwood admired creative writers for their ability to convey new ideas to a wide audience, and in the memoir section it is clearly a mainstream audience which she hoped to reach. Had she lived, this section would, I imagine, have made up the bulk of the book, with some of its more florid stylistic touches toned down by editors. As a short, incomplete work, however, The Eye of the Crocodile still has much of value to offer the reader.
The collection begins with Plumwood’s reflections on the fateful canoeing trip she made to the remote area of Kakadu when she encountered the crocodile. Her account gives an indication both of her personality and her writing style:
I suppose I have always been the sort of person who ‘goes too far’. I certainly went much too far that torrential wet season day in February 1985 when I paddled my little red canoe to the point where the East Alligator River surges out of the Stone Country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. It was the wrong place to be on the first day of the monsoon, when Lightning Man throws the rainbow across the sky and heavy rains began to lash the land. (10)
After surviving the crocodile attack, injured and alone, Plumwood crawled for help and was found by a park ranger. Reflecting on her experience at various points throughout the essays, Plumwood reveals how, by facing her own mortality and insignificance, she was inspired to question the dualistic thinking that underpinned both her reaction to the event as well as much of Western philosophy. This thinking sees humanity as an exception to nature, above and beyond it, instead of a part of it. It sees humans as separate from animals because we have “souls” and can reason, and this enables us to commodify animals as a food source, taking little care of the lives of the creatures whose flesh we eat. At the same time, we respond with rage, disbelief and a desire for retribution when predator animals prey on us, threatening the illusion of our supremacy and safe autonomy. In this, we deny our part in the food chain or “foodiness”, as Plumwood calls it.
In between dipping into Plumwood’s collection, I also listened to the latest ABC RN podcast of All in the Mind: “Animal Minds”. In this program, author Virginia Morell discusses a conversation she had with Jane Goodall over Goodall’s witnessing in the 1980s of the “deceptive” behaviour of a chimpanzee. What was clear in Morell’s account was that while Goodall attributed to the chimp a sense of “intention” – if not downright personality – she was also deeply wary of declaring such beliefs openly, for fear of being labelled “anthropomorphic” by a scientific community which, back in the 1980s, still thought of animals as little more than stimulus-response machines.
In her discussions of both the crocodile and her wild wombat “friend”, Plumwood seeks to avoid being anthropomorphic by depicting these wild animals as “radically other”, as seeming to share in aspects of human-like cognitive functioning, but also experiencing consciousness in their own terms, in their own environmental contexts and with their own needs as paramount. While Plumwood avoids sentimentalising animals, there are elements in her attitude to animals and the land that strike me as romantic, particularly in her evocation of Thoreau and in passages which borrow from motifs and themes of indigenous cultures. By contrast, there is little that is romantic in her critique of central tenets of Classical and modern philosophical thinking.
While Plumwood critiques Platonic idealist thinking and Christian monotheistic views of “heaven”, she also identifies similar dualistic thinking among those whose views, at first glance, would appear to be in radical opposition to the views of these other two groups: animal defence activists and material atheists. This is the area of her discussion which I found most compelling, and it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts about how we can honour and respect animals, while at the same time deriving the nourishment we need for survival in an ecologically aware manner.
According to Plumwood, “Ontological Vegans” would deny humans the right to eat meat (often adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude), by extending to (some) animals a separate, soul-like consciousness. In this, their stance is not dissimilar to the theists who claim humans are set apart from (other) animals: it is because of this “separateness” from lower-order life-forms that animal flesh becomes inviolable. (And the question becomes, at which animal/level of consciousness do we draw the line?) Embedded in this position, Plumwood claims, is the same Cartesian separation of mind/body that has led humanity to the utilitarian use of the environment which now threatens the planet.
Materialist atheists are also bound by this dualistic thinking. Those who see death as the “End of the Story”, she says, valorise individual, separate human consciousness as if it were the pinnacle of existence. Yet their so-called “bravery” in the face of a perceived nothingness after death is merely a factor of their deep sense of loss – if not nostalgia – for the “heavenism” of those who believe in an after-death eternal life for the spirit. Both Ontological Vegans and modernist-atheists fail to see the inter-connectedness of the human to ongoing life narratives, narratives which would allow human bodies, in death, to nourish and replenish the earth. Such non-dualistic thinking Plumwood refers to as “Ecological Animalism”.
Plumwood’s final piece, “Tasteless: Towards a food-based approach to death”, reveals how her non-dualistic view has been informed by her understanding of Australian indigenous cultures. In an Ecological Animalist framework, barriers between so-called materialist and more “spiritual” approaches to life are broken down:
By understanding life as circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling, a flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins. In place of the Western war of life against death whose battleground has been variously the spirit-identified afterlife and the reduced, medicalised material life, the Indigenous imaginary sees death as part of life, partly through narrative, and partly because death is a return to the (highly narrativised) land that nurtures life. (92)
I learned today that Plumwood helped to launch feminist Susan Hawthorne’s book Wild Politics at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2002, and that she lived and died not so very far away, at Braidwood, on the Southern Highlands, between Sydney and Canberra. She was old enough to be my mother, having had a daughter (who later died) the same year as I was born. Yet, while I can name several Australian sportswomen of that era, I’d never heard of Plumwood or her ideas till now. An Australian woman named internationally as one of “fifty key thinkers on the environment”, yet so little recognised.
How and why is that so?
Author: Val Plumwood
Title: The Eye of the Crocodile
Edited by Lorraine Shannon
ISBN 9781922144171 (Online)
Published November 2012
Citation url: http://epress.anu.edu.au?p=208511