A monster calls


OK, I admit it.  As an English teacher the thought of “no pens Wednesday” fills me with a little dread.  Sure, we can get on our feet and work on our acting chops, but the thought of a whole day not being able to pick up a book or put pen to paper can find me scratching my head thinking up engaging activities.  Such “days”, of course, are part of a laudable (and hugely belated) push towards sustainability and, thanks to guilt-inducing comments from conscientious students,  I am increasingly catching on to eco-friendly and zero waste solutions for the classroom.  

However, when thinking about how English Literature can be involved in sustainability, I’m wondering if recycled paper, cutting down on photocopying, and biodegradable pens is the only path.

What about the nature of literature itself?  And what about the idea of nature in literature?  How might these questions spark deeper thinking in the classroom about the planetary ecological catastrophe that we face?  In other words, how can reading and writing (on the right kind of paper with the right kind of pens) contribute to a global debate that helps us rethink literature and education´s role within the ecological democracy our children and young adults are entitled to inherit? And how can literature help us fulfil UNESCO´s statement for sustainability that “requires a shift from teaching to learning”?

One striking answer to these first questions is actually to abandon the idea of nature in its entirety.  Timothy Morton, a philosopher and literature professor at Rice University in Texas, suggests that “nature” is a concept invented by “man” (sic) and, as such, is not particularly useful if we´re thinking about “ecology”, which can be defined as “the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.” 

From this definition, central to the idea of ecology seems to be “relationships” and “vital connections”.  So, how about we start thinking about ways in which literature (both reading and writing) can first explore then forge such relationships and vital connections and, in doing so, form part of an ecology of sorts?  By getting rid of the idea of “nature” what Morton is able to do is to remind us that “human” and “nature” are not distinct realms; nature is not “out there” and we are not “in here” as it were; rather, nature is constantly present, always here; we live with it in a kind of symbiosis.  

There is a lot of talk right now about the “Anthropocene”, the geological phase we are currently in where humans and human activity has been responsible for triggering floods, species extinction, earthquakes, and so on.  Indeed, a recognition of the fact that we are in this phase demands us to acknowledge that all our actions and all our decisions, from the smallest to the most profound, have an environmental impact since everything is connected.  But why should we wait for extreme weather events to prove this interconnectedness?  And doesn’t simple awareness of the anthropocene ultimately just make us feel guilty, ashamed. overwhelmed, powerless?  As the UNESCO report states, “The emphasis has shifted from simply ‘getting the message across’ to facilitating civic participation, deliberative learning and re-imagining future possibilities. The importance of living more sustainably together with the necessary practices and skills to achieve these future states is therefore evident.”  

So, back to the initial question: how can literature play a role in the facilitation of education for sustainable development (ESD)?  How can it make us environmentally literate?  There are various routes to take.  Walt Whitman immediately springs to mind.  In many ways Leaves of Grass presents a radical re-thinking of sympathy away from a sentimental acknowledgement of another person towards a deeper recognition of a vitalism that surges through and connects humans and non-humans.  Similarly, Henry David Thoreau´s encounters with “nature” and the Wild is an exemplary writer who sharpens perception away from the day-to-day concerns that essentially narrow our vision to the extent of blindness and towards these connections and this vital current that runs through and between all things.  

But perhaps this is all a bit too vague, too wooly for the classroom, not practical enough to “facilitat[e] civic participation [and] deliberative learning” as the UNESCO document recommends.  

Let’s take a more concrete example then.  Currently Ms Fenton and I are teaching Patrick Ness´s enchanting and powerfully moving novel A Monster Calls with Year 7.    At the heart of the book is one such vital human/non-human relationship.  Conor O’Malley, a 13 year old boy, is awoken every night at 12:07  by a yew tree that has transmogrified into a huge monster we later discover is a human/non-human hybrid: The eternal Green Man.  

Mesmerised by the sheer size, longevity, and magical properties that yew trees possess the class has researched examples of yews living up to 5,000 years old and detected an ancient wisdom in its branches, an all-knowing, all powerful life force that is at once intimidating and overwhelming, irresistibly inviting and beguiling.   With this in mind, as we read we discover that the Tree is a far cry from a passive object of nature existing outside of and separate from the subjective human realm.

Furthermore, as many of the children predicted, thanks to their knowledge of the medicinal powers of yews, the tree is a great source of healing potential for Conor´s terminally ill mother.  At one point, looking out of the window at the tree, she refers to it as a “friend out there who’d help if things got to their worst”.  As the mother maintains faith in the tree´s capacity to heal (thanks to its bona fide cancer healing properties), the tree, in turn, gains strength and transforms from passive “nature” into an active subject – “the thing that healed me,” the mother claims.  This is not mere anthropomorphism; the relationship is reciprocal, synergistic, ecological.

A Monster Calls is packed with subtle images and references to these reciprocities and reaches a climax when Conor and the Monster morph into each other in a frenzy of raw destruction of which neither seem to be in control.  This episode gives us a glimpse into the tremendous virtual power latent in human/non-human relationships.  Like any great novel, reading A Monster Calls provides an opportunity for our young readers to see complex relationships unfolding and changing, enabling them to resist simplistic, instrumental ways of perceiving, understanding and living in the world.  Far from being a simple binary between the wild, untamed tree-monster and the tame human, Conor´s fearlessness towards the tree and the tree´s obedient response  “I await your command, boy, it said” urges readers themselves to resist the traditional fear of monsters and feel empowered to live with, alongside “nature”.  

While the monster does teach us grim truths about the anthropocene – Trees fell, fields were upended, rivers blackened. The sky choked on smoke and ash, and the people did, too, spending their days coughing and itching, their eyes turned forever towards the ground. Villages grew into towns, towns into cities. And people began to live on the earth rather than within it. (Ness, 2011: 125) – the novel´s greatest success lies, in my opinion, in providing a model for imagining ways of living within the earth again. Literature´s unique capacity to not simply warn us or teach us a lesson (no-one wants to be patronised!), but to present relationships and characters that change and adapt, become interconnected and interdependent, places The Novel in a tactically beneficial position to help facilitate “civic participation, deliberative learning and [a] re-imagining [of] future possibilities.”

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