Bio-Empathy: Writing to Re-See the World. A Discussion


In the spring of 2016, a group of women writers gathered over a kitchen table in Toronto to discuss how, in an era of ongoing and oncoming ecological crisis, we might use narrative to reimagine our relationship to nature. Much of the literature around us remains profoundly de-natured, and yet as beings and as a species we are entangled for our survival with the natural world. We reconvened on a panel a few weeks later at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs conference in Toronto where we presented short talks designed to open up a conversation. The pieces that follow have been adapted from those talks. In the largest way, we contemplate what the vocation of literature might require at this time, while noting narrative’s incipient perils: the way a story creates a frame; the impulse to make the world over into metaphor. How can we interact with nature on the page without co-opting it to our own designs?
— Catherine Bush

Diorama Thinking

We want the new pristine. We want the reclaimed wild. We want California Closets. We want to file everything in small display cases. In drawers… bits of leaf fragment. Pouches of dried marigold. Pouches of iris. Pouches of wax. We love our pouches. We are encased even as we move through the air. We move and compile. We are an economy of women grieving.
— Sina Queyras, “Of the Hollow” in MXT

It’s a late April morning, mid-week and I am standing before a diorama display at the Royal Ontario Museum. The display is titled “Empty Skies: the Passenger Pigeon Legacy” and it is placed in a high traffic area, between the bat cave and gift shop. School children are running around and there are parents with strollers but I have the tall glass display to myself.

Arranged throughout the case are ten taxidermied passenger pigeons. Russet-breasted and elegant—a few are suspended in ‘flight.’ Five ‘rest’ on groundcover of oak leaves and flora meant to replicate a southern Ontario spring. And, finally, one female with duller plumage ‘studies’ the diorama backdrop as though viewing a painting at a museum.

Of all the birds, it is the female by the background canvas that intrigues me the most. She does not seem at all convinced by the scene, which depicts an April morning in the 1860s.1 She does not seem to believe in the great flight of pigeons filling the sky. She bears all the skepticism of an art connoisseur who has caught whiff of a forgery; or perhaps more poignantly of a bird that has stopped believing she will ever be reunited with her vast migratory flock. I stare at her slender figure and try to see her beyond the swirl of my anthropomorphic projection: a bird made extinct by slaughter, habitat destruction, trapped now in this airless theatre.

“What does it mean to write in a time of exterminations and extinctions?” asks Deborah Bird Rose (quoted in Haraway 2010.) What is the vocation of literature at a time of ecological consternation and narrative failure?

The story of any lost life form is a tragedy, but the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, once the most plentiful bird on earth, occurred on a scale unmatched in human history. In Toronto, the birds were once so bountiful that “as late as 1860, one flight likely exceeded one billion birds” (Greenberg, xii). The birds blotted out the sun.

But fifty years later, the birds were gone.

This was not the story of averted catastrophe. It is a story that offers nothing in the way of ecological consolation.

The diorama before me is, like most dioramas, a combination of fake and real. Fake rock, real oak leaves. Fake wildflowers, real branches.

There are children shouting near the bat cave. I wonder about this diorama. I wonder if it can produce any signal at all in the noisy and frenetic corridor of this particular museum. It seems strangely fitting that a memorial to a species that slipped away, as though vanishing in a stream through a rent in the sky, could so easily escape notice.2

I wonder about the patina we place on nature—as conservationists, museum curators but also as artists and writers. I wonder about the vitrine of story. The pedestal of plot. We are living amidst two fairly large narratives, two outsized conceptions—the Anthropocene and the Sixth Great Extinction. Both convey something of the epic scale of the earth’s predicament, both are contributing to burgeoning academic and literary output.

But are there limits to such grand-tragic frames?

Last week a friend of mine visited an expert on Scandinavian butterflies. The expert’s concern was that Climate Change has become such a dominant narrative that other notions of time (and associated phenomena) within butterfly studies are now becoming lost. The politics of climate anticipation press deeply on ecological research and species are being increasingly framed as climate indicators— small additions to the robust climate story. We are all becoming swept-up in the temporalities of our climate performance. What does this mean for less indicative species? What does this mean for a bigger wilder messier picture? 3

Back by the diorama, three new children have arrived. They do not look at the case. A “touch table” hosted by two ROM volunteers has upstaged the passenger pigeons. Placed on a trolley is a mounted Great Horned Owl. An older woman who resembles an airline stewardess with a tidy bob and chic neck scarf holds a Snowy Owl aloft and invites the children to touch the bird’s plumage. They approach the dead bird as though greeting an unfamiliar pet and stroke it with a mixture of warmth and wariness.

In the museum, and not just in the museum, nature has become a tableau imbued with melancholia and what Rachel Poliquin calls “a vague sense of noble tragedy.”4

I wonder: is it possible to see an extinct or threatened bird beyond the meanings and uses humans apply to her? Can it be anything other than a cipher of human loss, a tidy icon of sadness/failure to us humans? What of visceral, idiosyncratic, complicated, fractious animals?5

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald observes that when a species is threatened its decline, from a human vantage point, is not only numeric but also semantic. “The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have,” she writes. “Eventually rarity is all they are made of.”

The stuffed bird in the glass box. The vast world diminished in the unearthly space of the museum, the zoo, the nature sanctuary, the poetic set piece.

The point I wish to make is that we should be less concerned with the diorama as form than with the diorama as “a way of seeing.” Or as a way of thinking. We do not, after all, need the glass vitrine to encase nature. We do it all the time.

We do it with our literary fiction and our lyric poetry and we do it with conservation efforts that reinforce a “reserved, distanced view of modern nature-appreciation.” There are many ways of enshrining nature.

Indeed, one might ask: What is most sad? That the world has become a place filled with absences? That many of us don’t know that these absences exist? That we place technology in and around the gaps? Or that, in the name of protection/conservation, we risk imposing a diorama on the world itself?

A few days after I visit the passenger pigeon display, I will speak with the director of a local wilderness awareness school for children. He has just come from a meeting with the city’s forestry department where he has been told that the children he takes through High Park will no longer be able to touch the sticks they find. In the interest of conservation, the PINE Project will have to import sticks and remove them at the end of each day—like props on a theatre set. To treat nature as untouchable, to treat children as intruders, where does this lead?

The museum has returned the diorama to me as something strange and unsettled, a compartment but also a comportment.

The questions that linger are these:
Can art/literature be a hammer to plate glass thinking?
How, finally, might we fight against “the diminution of the world”?

With thanks to Catherine Bush, Sharon English, Alissa York, Kathryn Kuitenbrower, and Lise Weil.

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Writing the Weather

Last month saw the biggest year-over-year jump in atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide on record. And that, reports NOAA, the US weather service, took May 2016 to the highest monthly levels of CO2 in the air ever measured — 407.7 ppm.
At the same time, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports the warming-driven death spiral of Arctic sea ice hit a staggering new May low. May 2016 saw Arctic sea ice extent drop “about 600,000 square kilometers below any previous year in the 38-year satellite record”.

— from an article by Joe Fromm in the online forum Climate Progress.

Closer to where I live, after a warm winter, it was cold for weeks this spring and there were no cherry blossoms. Now a surfeit of swallowtail butterflies has appeared, sucking nectar out of my garden’s wild phlox; hawks nest a couple of blocks away and send keening cries from silver maple trees onto passersby below. Cars speed past. A strong wind blows out of the west. In the park a mother hovers over her 13-month-old son who wanders among the dogs. He’ll only eat off the floor with his mouth, she says. He drinks from the dog bowl and pants, and she’s fine with it for now but worries about what will happen to him when he gets older. When he grows into this world of ours, whatever this world will be.

Two years ago I stumbled across this quote, which appears near the end of the Uncivilization Manifesto, a text co-authored by Paul Kingsnorth, the English writer and activist. The manifesto, available online (, led to the founding of the Dark Mountain Project. Through Dark Mountain, Kingsnorth and fellow travellers seek to create a new literature for this unsettled present lived on the edge of a climate precipice and in the midst of mass species extinctions. The manifesto states: “The shifting of emphasis from man to not-man: this is the aim of Uncivilized writing. …This is not a rejection of our humanity – it is an affirmation of the wonder of what it means to be truly human.”

While I balk every time I read the phrase “from man to not-man,” the underlying impulse, to shift our emphasis from the wholly human-focused to an inclusive world that includes human and nonhuman life, feels crucial.

Writing recreates the world through particular ways of paying attention. Our attention informs every choice of word, rhythm, gesture, movement, subjectivity, thought. It’s a kind of energy transfer, too. Poets have it easy. They can create a world on the page out of their noticings and the synaptic links between them. For prose writers, there is the thorny question of narrative, as in, How do we turn the world of our noticings into a story? Narrative amplifies certain kinds of choice: the need for agents, for people, usually people, to do things and be changed by them. Narrative is the choreography of change, as the New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton said in a talk to my students.

As I work on my current novel-in-progress, whose title like the weather keeps shifting, I’ve been attempting to make the nonhuman elements — weather, landscape, animals —something other than backdrop to the human drama. I want to give them presence and agency, to shift the balance of parts. How do I give the weather agency in a novel?

The novel takes place on a fictionalized version of Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It opens in the midst of a storm, the remnants of a huge hurricane that has surged up the East Coast of North America. Fogo Island is a place where “wind decides everything,” in the words of Al Dwyer, one of its residents. Wind lives against the skin, and people are in constant interaction with it. It pushes against the body, is ferocious in the ears. People notice as soon as the direction of the wind shifts. Each direction brings different weather. Wind isn’t wind it is winds, multiple. How do I make this presence felt to the reader without personifying it? Or romanticizing it? My narrator is not a local although she has lived on the island for a long time. Her relation to the deeply local remains that of a settler, always and forever an outsider, if one deeply familiar with the place. Her father, an Arctic climate scientist, teaches her to be a wind noticer: he gives her lessons in the winds. She grows attentive to them. The novel voices her noticings and that of others. As the climate shifts, the winds, as people in the Arctic have remarked, grow shiftier. The old winds become new in sometimes dangerous ways. I want the subjectivity of the novel to enact this shifting awareness and presence without overwhelming the reader with too much windiness.

I don’t want to argue that I’m doing anything new, only something that is new to me. In The Spell of the Sensuous, philosopher and ecologist David Abram writes of how “many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or ‘mind’ not as a power that resides inside their heads but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds.” [pg. 227, Chapter 7, The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air, The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, Vintage Books, New York, 1996; italics his.] In Navajo culture, he writes, “mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans – like all other beings – participate.” [Ibid, pg. 237]

We all have origins somewhere but many of us live displaced from ours. I spent my childhood in Toronto as a first-generation immigrant, lacking any sense of land roots while being hyper-attuned to the sentience of the natural world. I felt like an outsider always. Any of us trying to connect the human and nonhuman in words must navigate a relationship to indigeneity. Here in North America we write in the presence of cultures who have lived on this continent for thousands of years and for whom the wind has always been a living presence. Before being sucked into lives shaped by materialism and objectification and capitalism, our own ancestors lived tuned to the natural world. If we now live outside of indigeneity, and even outside of deeply local land roots, how do we acknowledge these in our writing? You might say that contemporary industrialized culture’s fetishizing of the human to the exclusion of other forms of life perpetuates its own ongoing fiction: wind and weather actually have more agency over us than we allow them either in our perception of our lives or in our literature.

How do I make the natural world a living presence in a novel without sounding sentimental, nostalgic, without gesturing towards a pastoral and nonurban past? What I want to evoke is a here and now, where wind moves through cities as well as the country. This here and now also pushes my characters as it pushes us, towards a future confrontation with disaster and possible extinction. How do I counter inevitable despair with something else?

I want to mention a few novels that I feel embody the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman presences and give a sense of a fully animated world. First, to underline my sense that what I’m calling for is not inherently new, I’ll point to French novelist Jean Giono’s Colline (1929), recently republished in English as Hill (New York Review Books Classics, 2016). In Hill, French peasants respond to their landscape as a living body and are terrified by it; nevertheless, Giono’s metaphor-rich prose insists on the depth and profusion of the interconnection. The omniscient narrator of American Kathryn Davis’s novel The Thin Place (Little Brown, 2006) acknowledges the deep time of the geological past and briefly inhabits the points of view of beaver and lichen as well as various humans and other animals. At the end of Canadian/American Lydia Millet’s novel How the Dead Dream (Soft Skull, 2007) a former stockbroker lies by a muddy riverbank pressed against a lost young mammal, trying to love it like a mother, tentatively imagining his way into its consciousness.

In any attempt to re-wild our literature the reader is essential as a co-creator of wildness. Writers may de-centre the human in their work and push their own consciousness elsewhere but the reader must notice the displacements and respond empathetically to the live-ness of other elements: animal, vegetable, geological, meteorological. If the reader doesn’t bring a reciprocal desire and attentiveness to her reading, the writer’s attentions will not register. Larger, necessary cultural transformations require writers and readers to engage in this process together.

Repetition is a strategy of trauma, a way of calling attention to the traumatized place that needs to change but can’t. Stories use repetition to enact change. Narrative power arises when the element that returns alters. In this way, stories enact hope. They contain, structurally, the possibility of change and the opportunity to see anew. Through stories we can create a world with radical and ever-extending forms of empathy that also make space to acknowledge all that we don’t know of the world around us.

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Making Room for World: Fiction as Wayshower

The Task
As a writer, I’ve long been drawn to place: how places inhabit us even when we’ve chosen to be rootless, a people of transience, individualist and opportunist. My first book of stories was about growing up in the suburbs, while my second was about the Canadian west coast, that oft-romanticized, final frontier to which many have drifted hoping for a better life. In writing these stories I came to realize that I was, fundamentally, always dramatizing the same thing: our separateness, our lostness, our angst and confusion in these communities of strangers and lands that are, at best, beautiful yet mute, and at worst alien, damaged, hostile.

When I began thinking about the book that became my novel What Has Night To Do With Sleep?, I’d become immersed in reading nonfiction writers like Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, David Abram, and Roger Deakin. These writers, whose works foreground the natural world, helped guide me ever further away from a human-centred worldview. They revealed a different way of living in respect, celebration and deep relationship with the world and all its diversity. At the time I was increasingly gripped by the reality of ecological devastation; the social alienation I’d explored through stories seemed to arise fundamentally from our broken relationship to the natural world.

I wanted to write about this in fiction, yet could find few models to follow. Most literary fiction, unwittingly or not, colludes with rather than challenges our culture’s dominant stories—the master narratives and myths that fuel the engine of our civilization. Such stories include the notion of a ‘natural’ split, even an opposition, between humanity and nature—which our unique evolution and glittering techno progress and even fate are pulling us away from at lightspeed. Under the myth of human exceptionalism, nature exists to service us, our pool of things (‘resources’) to commodify; our consciousness and intelligence are the only ones that matter, or even exist, and our achievements and desires take priority over the integrity of all other life.

I no longer bought this. I wanted stories that called out our misaligned relationship with the natural world, that showed us the way back home. I felt that fiction could contribute enormously to this task—an essential one, it seemed to me, for healing ourselves and restoring life on this planet.

My goal, then, became to write a novel that conveyed the atmosphere of imminent ecological catastrophe in which we live—yet also took the reader through a breakdown of the civilization/nature split. I wanted to explore what the end of our separateness might feel like—and how it might happen, that beginning of deep reconnection, return. What might it take to reawaken to the field of earthly relationships in which we exist, to a sense of kinship with the community of non-human presences that have been always with us?

Novelist’s Notes: Strategies and Risks
Setting. It was crucial to me that the book be set in a city because most of us live in them, and thinking of nature as ‘elsewhere’ is part of the civilization/nature split, the psychosis that needs to be healed. I wanted to show that reconnection to the natural world happens right where we are, not by touching the wild on vacation. Part of fiction’s magic, generally, is that it opens the reader to the complexity, beauty, mystery and sorrow that accompany us every day. So I set the book in Toronto and made use of the less urbanized spaces like Toronto Island, which is central.

Plot. By immersing the reader so intimately in other perspectives, fiction can subvert our prejudices, self-obsession and myopia. In my novel I decided to focus on three characters, their stories told in alternating points of view. The thematic connection is that each character becomes obsessed with something in the natural world. In this way, personal and ecological were linked, and I also could show that the journey to integration/reconnection is unique for each individual.

Portraying nature. A great challenge for me lay in how to write a human-focused story, about people in an urban environment, without the natural world being subordinated to mute background—its customary role in everything we write, from fiction to science. I tried to emphasize the weather, terrain, stars, and presence of animals naturally yet persistently to keep non-human dynamism and drama present. Yet I also wanted to suggest that this field of earthly and cosmic relationships in which we are perpetually enfolded has agency and intelligence. That there’s always communication happening within the field, between ourselves and other beings, whether or not we’re aware of it. We are never alone, and always influenced.

To suggest this, I tried several strategies. First, I tried to show that each character’s obsession with nature isn’t something that they decide, but that finds them. We are part of the world, and thus the world speaks and acts through us. The characters might resist the call, but resistance only makes things harder.

Another strategy involved the characters’ dreams and intuitions, which are important. I wanted to suggest that the non-human world often communicates through these experiences, giving us messages through the heart and subtle senses. As the characters begin to align with these, they find a strength and grounding they didn’t expect.

Finally, I wanted to show a more direct intra-species communication, human to nonhuman. Everyone knows we ‘speak’ to our dogs and cats, yet these are familiar, domesticated species. I wanted to push into different territory, and this was the most risky thing I did, in my opinion. In the novel, one of the characters is searching for a species of luminous moth that only she’s seen. Finding it consumes her, yet despite her skill and effort, the moth remains elusive until she stops trying to lure it to her and learns to be called. Without giving too much away, I tried to show how the moth chooses when to meet, and where; that it demands a surrender of will, assumptions and ill-intent, and that this experience—meeting a consciousness and agency equal to our own—is the message. This isn’t simply a creature fleeing humans or being rescued by them; it’s actively rescuing itself and positing a different kind of relationship.

In fiction we use the term ‘worldbuilding’ to describe the act of creating a convincing imaginary setting. Yet in truth, all writing does worldbuilding. Whether fictional, academic, legal or corporate, our writing conveys a notion of reality, the frames and nuances of which depend on the writer. Fiction is uniquely positioned to challenge and enlarge those frames—to open up our human-privileged worldview, to imagine other ways of seeing and living that we desperately need. The stories we tell can help us reckon with what’s gone wrong in our world, and find a new sense of home in a grand and luminous field of conscious creation.

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The results are in, science having once again trapped the moth of common knowledge in a jar: stories build empathy. Tests have shown that reading the line “she leapt from the branch” lights up the region of the brain used in leaping. “We knew it!” writers everywhere exclaim. “Now what?”

Much of the world is coming to value diversity—a shift in perspective due in no small part to the contributions of writers and other cultural workers. So while we’re at it, why not adopt the prefix “bio,” thereby extending the empathetic impulse to include all life?

It begins, as communion so often does, with paying attention. In his haunting elegy-cum-manifesto, The Once and Future World: Nature as It Was, as It Is, as It Could Be, J.B. MacKinnon describes walking though grizzly country in what the naturalist John Livingston characterized as a participatory state of mind: “As my senses reach outward, I spread away from myself… It’s the closest a person can feel, I think, to being a flock of birds.” It’s a poetic reckoning, but MacKinnon’s findings are also deeply practical: “It’s not that self-awareness is absent in animals… but that it is a less useful tool than an outward mind: to endure among other species, you must experience the world as a place you share with them.”

Which is what I want to talk about here: sharing the world. In fact, I want to tell you a little story.

One March morning, some half-dozen years ago, I looked out my living room window and spotted something dark moving against the patchy snow. Three doors down on the far side of the street, a raccoon was staggering across a narrow front yard. Keeping one eye on it, I reached for my phone.

“We’ll be there as soon as possible,” the man at Animal Services assured me. “Thanks for letting us know.”

I grabbed my coat, yanked on my boots and headed outside. For ten, perhaps fifteen minutes I stood at a safe distance, warning passers-by, none of whom appeared to notice the ailing raccoon. Not even when it dragged itself onto the sidewalk. Not even when it tottered off the curb into the road.

What could I do, wave down every passing vehicle? It was either that or watch from the safety of the sidewalk while the raccoon tempted traffic like a reckless drunk. Looking up and down the block, I spotted a third alternative in the form of the old blue box on my porch. Symbol of humanity’s good intentions—or possibly of “too little, too late”—the box seemed built to purpose; it even had a few holes to let in the air.

The raccoon had made it to the middle of the road, where it bobbed and shuddered, peering alternately at the pavement and at the sky. I approached it with care. Dropping the trap, I nudged it back until it butted up against the curb. Tufts of grizzled fur poked out the holes. An eye looked up. A quivering nose. The raccoon struggled for all it was worth—which wasn’t very much. It was enough to move the box, though. Enough to require that I plant a boot on it, the way a hunter plants a boot on her kill.

When Animal Services finally arrived, it arrived in the form of a young woman—almost a girl—with black feathered hair and enough eyeliner to create the impression of a squint. She glanced at the box, nodded and opened the back doors of her van.

“He’s really sick,” I blurted. “He hasn’t moved in a while.”

She turned to face me. In one hand she held a small cage, in the other, a stick of sorts that ended in a wire noose. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can lift the box.”

The raccoon was still alive, but just barely. His eyes had clouded over and—I know this can’t be right, but it’s what I remember—he seemed to have shrunk by half.

“Oh, buddy.” The girl gazed at him. “Feeling pretty rough, huh?”

He put up no fight as she slipped the noose over his head, worked it down past one foreleg, then the next. Slowly, she drew it tight.

“That’s it,” she murmured. “Thattaboy.”

She lifted the raccoon as gently as one can with a noose on a stick, and deposited him in the cage. Latching it shut, she slid it into a dock in the back of the van. When she closed the doors, she did so carefully, with scarcely a sound.

You see what happened there? From vermin to living (dying) individual in one short, bushy tale. Stories have the power to make us alive to one another—that is, to all “others.”

When we write and read biodiverse narratives, we foster bio-empathy—a crucial undertaking in an age of extinction that could very well include our own. In her naturalist masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard lays out the necessary work: “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear is a Toronto-based arts writer, novelist and children’s author. She is currently working on a PhD at York University in the areas of literature, film and the environmental humanities. Her newest book, Birds, Art, Life, is a meditation on her engagement with birds as observed in an urban context.
Photo credit: Nancy Friedland

Catherine Bush

Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, Accusation, Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement and Minus Time. Her work has been published internationally. She is the Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA. Her current novel, Elemental, uses Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, to shape a contemporary fiction that dramatizes climate changes and human responses to them.
Photo credit: ayelet tsabari

Sharon English

Sharon English has published two collections of short stories, Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity, which was long-listed for the Giller Prize. Her new novel, What Has Night To Do With Sleep? attempts to find convincing ways to evoke the earth, its non-human creatures and the cosmos as conscious agents in life. She’s currently the director of the Writing and Rhetoric Program at the University of Toronto, where she teaches creative writing.

Alissa York

Alissa York is the award-winning author of the novels The Naturalist, Fauna, Effigy and Mercy, and the fiction collection Any Given Power. She has just been appointed full-time faculty at the Humber School for Writers. In The Naturalist, a young 19th-century Quaker woman discovers an awakened affinity for the natural world while travelling along the Amazon.

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