Louis Rogers was relieved that Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman moved away from typical descriptions of nature as ecstatic. He reviews this 'intelligently digested' collection of wide-ranging ideas about more complex relationships with ecology from the celebrated poet.
After reading first sentence of ‘On Panpsychism’ in Strangers – Rebecca Tamás’s new essay collection – I felt a relief I hadn’t known I’d needed:
‘When I go for a solstice swim on the south coast, I come out not feeling as refreshed as I might hope – still battling a summer cold, still worrying.’
Some proponents of nature-writing – the kind whose encounters with the sublime come furred with adjectives and relayed with all the insufferable evangelism of an early-morning swimmer – would have you believe that the natural world is a source of relentless ecstatic revelation. They sometimes remind me of a particular feedback form I was asked to fill out at university, which asked (by way of a tick-box response) whether I was ‘completely stimulated’. But here, Tamás is ready to admit that being in nature can be disappointing, vaguely unsettling, or even boring.
Some proponents of nature-writing... would have you believe that the natural world is a source of relentless ecstatic revelation
The fact is, we don’t just experience the natural world – we relate to it. As Tamás suggests, these relationships can be acquisitory or presumptuous. Often they are inelegant. That opening sentence tells the whole, familiar story: it starts out purposeful and alliterative, with the conviction of someone who is counting on bragging about their weekend, but ends up repetitious – still battling, still worrying – stuck in preconditions it had hoped not to have to mention. It even confesses to that most embarrassingly asynchronous affliction – the summer cold. A wild swim will almost always blow away the cobwebs, but of all the recent literary swims I can think of, it is Tamás’s thwarted attempt that I’ve found most refreshing.
This disabused attitude undergirds Strangers, a book of seven ‘Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’. Each considers some aspect of how we, as humans, relate to that which we designate non-human: animal and plant life, and possibly also the spiritual realm. This isn’t a book that necessarily implores us to 'reconnect' across that divide; rather it circles the reasons for the disconnection, describing it as manufactured and fallacious, and takes vigorous pleasure in exposing uncomfortable connections where we might least like to recognise them.
The natural world does get exalted along the way, but what stands out in Tamás’s account are its difficulties and uglinesses
The natural world does get exalted along the way, but what stands out in Tamás’s account are its difficulties and uglinesses, its jangling dissonances that elude neat, marketable retelling. The collection’s second essay, ‘On Hospitality’ sets the tone for this preoccupation. The piece is substantially a reading of the novel The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, in which a sculptor living a comfortable life in Rio goes to clear out the bedroom of her recently departed maid and has a fraught encounter with the single, brown cockroach she finds there. The sculptor is appalled by the cockroach but also recognises some awful mutuality in it: she sees unequivocally that they share, as Tamás puts it, the same, 'mute life force'.
This is a kind of truth, but it is realised as a problem rather than a solution. It has form: Lispector’s cockroach, especially in Tamás’s rendition, recalls the dumb, disquieting insect Gregor Samsa becomes in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as well as David Foster Wallace’s lobsters from Consider the Lobster, with their 'thick antennae awhip'. But G.H.’s revelation, which for Tamás is 'this strange moment of nonhuman recognition...the radical reality of intimate difference', reminds me most of the vital and awkward conclusion Annie Dillard reaches in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Even after developing a total attention to the natural world around her, Dillard cannot see cohesive, sublime sense in it. Some parts refuse to provide clear-cut meaning; in her immensely memorable phrase: ‘There is something that profoundly fails to be exuberant about these crawling, translucent lice and white, fat-bodied grubs.’ Mark O’Connell describes Dillard as ‘inhabit[ing] the world in an ecstatic way while refusing to avert her eyes from its darkness’ – Tamás shares this rigour, and has her own version of Dillard’s real, elucidating humour.
One strain of climate activism might tell us we need to fall in love with nature, to be bewitched by it again, in order to ballast our commitment to saving it
One strain of climate activism might tell us we need to fall in love with nature, to be bewitched by it again, in order to ballast our commitment to saving it. Yet for Tamás, an acknowledgement of its unwieldy weirdness – its failure to be exuberant – is at the heart of a truly engaged and resilient activism. The guiding convictions of her essays are therefore in the stark, inchoate mould of G.H.’s revelation. It follows that her arguments sometimes suffer when they hit the rocks of more programmatic argumentative language. The book’s less effective first essay ‘On Watermelon’, an argument for the affinity of environmentalist and socialist causes, is at pains to make exhortations that aren’t particularly controversial or sharply focussed, even if their resources are intriguing. Tamás’s convictions transmit best when, like Dillard’s, they are presented as deep-seated tangles of problems, muggy with their accusing stink of accuracy. Tamás writes personally and pungently, enacting the type of thinking that she advocates: 'not un-intellectual but suffused with irrationality'. The best essays here tread a rare, involving