Review: Granta 153 Second Nature


Intertwining research, essays, photography, poetry and prose from a wide range of authors, Granta’s issue ‘Second Nature’ probes into the scientific and emotional truths of our changing climate. From dakhmas in India to the cool expanse of Joya del Hielo, Australia’s farmlands to the Artic spring, the Amazon to the vegetable garden, ‘Second Nature’ divulges the innermost thoughts of its writers. Their personal experience of the effects of human activity on the environment encompasses both the positive and negative.

Perhaps most prevalent is the concept of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’; when what is expected, such as the environment's health, changes from generation to generation. Professor Callum Roberts recounts taking his students to the Maldives to investigate the marine ecosystem three years after a massive bleaching event where 50-70% of the coral had died. He recalls the gaps in life, animal and plant alike, spectres in this vivid reef. In the meantime, “Most of [his] students are fresh to the scene and revel in the immediacy of the experience. To them, the blanks are invisible.” This presents a real obstacle when addressing the urgency of climate change; to each generation, the current climate becomes the new standard, the ‘new normal’ as we have become so accustomed to hearing. One of the single most shocking sentences in the entire volume originates from Professor Roberts’ piece when asserting that the current climate crisis is unequivocally caused by humanity. That “in the time that it takes you to read this sentence, the world will have trapped additional heat that is equivalent to the explosion of thirty Hiroshima-sized bombs.” The author went so far as to immediately follow with, “Read that again, it wasn’t a misprint.” Gut-wrenching.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most poignant perspectives were those of Indigenous writers from lands their peoples have looked after for generations. Their connection to their lands–and their spirit–is symbiotic and undeniable. Though they will not be specifically mentioned in this review, these authors include Sheila Watt-Cloutier from the Inuit community Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, northern Quebec, Canada and Manari Ushigua from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

Rod Mason, also known as Ibai Wumburra, is an Indigenous Senior Law Man and local rainmaker of the Ngarigo people of south-eastern New South Wales. His totems are the Kaua (echidna) and Ibai (eagle-hawk) and he is of the Wolgal-Bemmergal clan. He recounts the movement of his people from Indonesia to Australia, stories of megafauna and European invasion, cultural memories from thousands of years ago to that of recent history. His ancestors, including his forefather Ibai Mullyan, also known as Murray Jack who was a senior law man of the Ngarigo, cared for Country under the forests of the giant trees of Gippsland. Each year people from other tribes would bring gifts to them. Mason’s ancestors were seen as those who held up the sky; a vital ancient responsibility. Mason was taught burning patterns by his grandparents as a young child; it is from a lifetime of experience that he recognises instances such as the Cobargo fire as unnaturally extreme weather. This fire tornado is a severe warning that Country is suffering. For non-Indigenous readers, he insists “the key to it all is understanding–listen to each other… That’s where it all starts”.

In a reversal of elements, Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley addresses the issue of sea level rise. Having traversed the Antarctic multiple times, she describes how when floating ice shelves collapse, land-based glaciers begin to melt into the warming ocean, contributing to rising sea levels. While countries–and even states, cities and suburbs–have been divided by lockdowns, “When the ocean really does eat people’s countries, the people displaced by rising sea level will need somewhere to go.” Drawing on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s message for the people of New Zealand to be resilient, calm and kind, Associate Professor Priestley considers whether kindness is what is truly required to approach the current climate crisis. Perhaps only through such empathy and understanding can we form a unified front, not just as cities, states or countries, but the planet as a whole.

Through all these overlapping voices, one message pierces through: our planet is already changed. It is only through listening–through kindness–that we may reduce the rising tides of crisis.

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