《On the unexpected acquisitions from Wu Ming-Yi's Nature Writing》
(Alternative Title: A Spiritual Traveller's Confession towards Nature)
By Phoebe Wong
Landscape photography is a trudge, a pursuit, and an impulse exclusive to mankind for trekking to a beautiful sight.
—— Above Flame, p.101
For butterflies, the eclosion is probably not a bewitching process as some literature authors describe but the decisive moment of life and death.
—— The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.152
We simply can't count the raindrops fallen in the rain; what we can do is to face the indefinable beauty, danger, panic, and fate intuitively.
—— The Dao of Butterflies, p.244
The reason why I accepted Art Together's invitation to participate in the art festival in Tai Sang Wai was because of my eagerness to try out "nature writing". After spending a while differentiating Tai Sang Wai and Nam Sang Wai, I went to the fishponds in the former a few times. My impression on the place wasn't particularly strong. Besides, I lacked the cultivation of nature education, how could I write about nature? Therefore, I returned to the origin and went on a spiritual journey in literature by reading "nature writings" to understand its essence as well as nature.
I first learned about “nature writing” in Wu Ming-Yi's Above Flame (2014). It was sometime after 2014, and it was a long-overdue first encounter. I stumbled across and bought the book in a bookstore in Taipei. I picked it up because it talks about photography as I like reading essays about photography. Apart from explaining the writer's thoughts on photography as a photographer, the book also touches upon and gives insights on nature photography, a field of photography that I don't know much. In the chapter discussing places and landscape photography, the author begins with an extensive description of the Yosemite National Park written by nature book author John Muir. Wu admires Muir for inducing readers' imagination through his “text photography”. He states that Muir's notes are like photographs, some capture a scenery while others represent his state of mind. (Above Flame, p.91)
In fact, at the beginning of his book, Wu quoted Ian Jeffrey's viewpoints from Photography: A Concise History to expound his thoughts between photography and nature. Wu stated that he is “captivated” by two ideas of Jeffrey. First, photography is a critical process that “discovers” the ability of nature in registering its own images. Second, photographs are like natural specimens caught in the wild. Surprisingly, these two ideas thoroughly define the pursuits of eco-photographers as I believe. In essence, eco-photographers spend their entire life discovering light as well as the wilderness and wildness that a camera can capture. In other words, they are hunting for the specimen of light all their lives. And when they face their photographs, they will recall, relive the scene they once experienced and realise that they are instead what the light and the camera have captured. (Above Flame, p.28)
After all, you are what you capture.
From Above Flame, I have refreshed my memory on the story in Moonrise, a classic photograph of an American landscape photography master Ansel Adams; the chronophotography by Eadweard Muybridge, in which he captured all four feet of a horse went off the ground at the same time while trotting (Wu lamented over human's dilatory care of animals’ movement); and the criticality of the “Deadpan” landscape in New Topographics. At the same time, I have also learnt about George Shiras III's nocturnal wildlife photographs, the meaning behind Alfred Stieglitz's recurring clouds photographs, the ins and outs of the microphotographic technology development, as well as the colonial perspective in photographing endangered or legendary animals (like the clouded leopard).
Being a nature lover, art lover, and photography lover, Wu Ming-Yi's literature background has entailed immanent contradictions to his view on nature photography. As mentioned above, Wu is glad to see, as well as to practise himself, using photographs as an alternative for obtaining natural specimens instead of killing. Besides, he believes that photography has the power to freeze the ever-moving natural world (Above Flame, p.15); it allows ones to recurrently observe, study, and comprehend nature. However, when he walks into the wild and takes pictures, he deems that only the appearance of a creature, before it is captured in a photo, possesses the genuine freedom of living and the unrestrained soul, thus the pure wildness. It lives and shines like a star in the sky. One simply can't represent a clouded leopard through a photograph, just as we can't showcase the wholeness of life with an image. (Above Flame, p.65)
The forms of Wu Ming-Yi's writing are diversified, ranged from novels, proses, to research essays. He is not only a nature writer but also a researcher on nature writing, investigating the development and genealogy of modern nature writings in Taiwan. In order to learn about “nature writing”, I have read several books written by Wu, including The Dao of Butterflies (2010), The Book of Lost Butterflies (2000), So Much Water So Close to Home (2007), The Search for Modern Taiwanese Nature Writing 1980-2002: Liberating Nature through Writing, The Man with the Compound Eyes (2011), and the Liberating Nature through Writing series, et cetera.
So, what is “nature writing”? It is a writing genre that puts nature as its subject. According to Chen Jian-Yi, nature writing emphasises “nature experience”, meaning that the author should go into wild to observe and interact. Wu regards “nature writing” as “intellectual writing” as it combines traditional natural history, natural science knowledge, moral introspection, the lyricism of literature, and the touch of aesthetic. (Refer to Liberating Nature through Writing series vol. 1, p.9,10) Besides, Wu gives prominence to the literature quality in writings owing to his training in literature. Hence, Wu is indeed designating his nature writing in the realm of literature (nature writing in a narrow sense). Wu affirms the catalytic role of literariness in nature writing by concluding that as nature writing is a writing genre that requires authors' to put oneself in nature, it allows the author to transform a genealogy of knowledge they have acquired in the wild into a literature “perspective”. Their view on environmental ethics may then become a more latent fabric, providing a more profuse presentation of literary connotation and attracting readers into nature. (Selected Taiwanese Nature Writing, p.294)
[Figure 1: What is “nature writing”? ]
While some people are afraid of cockroaches and others are scared of rats, caterpillars are my worst nightmare. Even if I only catch a glimpse of its figure on the wall, it is more than enough to give me goosebumps. I once had this horrifying nightmare: I was in a courtroom filled with caterpillars, in which these myriad of black bodies are crawling endlessly. Every time I recall this dream, I can't help but shake my head subconsciously to shake the image off. I presume this nightmare about caterpillars is probably the reason for my indifference – despairing indifference – towards the beauty of butterflies. But when I learned from Liu Ka-Shiang that The Book of Lost Butterflies (2000) and The Dao of Butterflies (2003) are the essential books to understand Taiwan's nature writing, I realised that I couldn't skip Wu's essays about butterflies.
I started with The Dao of Butterflies and followed by The Book of Lost Butterflies. In all honesty, I planned to read only one of them originally. The reason why I chose the former was that its title is more intellectual and appealing to me. But it turned out that the “lost butterfly” is not only a revelation of Wu's obsession with “mysterious butterflies” but also an ecological term. Wu explained that lost butterflies are non-indigenous butterflies which appear in and inhabit a foreign region due to migration or nature factors (such as a typhoon). [...] In an alien habitat, lost butterflies compete, battle, and struggle against native species. They also implicate the pattern and course over the history of mankind.
Wu thinks that butterflies are full of mystery. He finds their wings are incredibly gorgeous and gets excited whenever he looks at them. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.160) Because the wings of butterflies are covered with tiny scales, butterflies are classified as Lepidoptera in the taxonomy. The colours on butterflies' wings are the product of “flavonoids” [...] However, the scales of some butterflies do not contain pigment molecules. Instead, they reflect light to cast natural colours. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.42) From this line, I found the source of Wu's excitement over butterflies. How beautiful are the wings of butterflies? Lycaenidae may be ordinary to many. However, Wu scrutinised their wings and associates them with different schools of art. This kind of practice is especially welcomed by practitioners in the art circle. There are more than a hundred species of Lycaenidae in Taiwan. The ventral wing of each species is a unique painting. For example, the waves of white caps on the light brown background on the wings of Lampides boeticus are the expressive lines in Ma Yuan's paintings of water. The bold blue, green, and red splashes on the wings of Euaspa forsteri represent the flamboyance of Fauvism. The patterns on Shijimia moorei are the pointillism and divisionism paintings to be completed upon they fly and reflect sunlight to the viewer's eyes. And the patterns on the wings of Zizeeria maha are like the pigment splashed by an innocent child, leaving ones with the impression of an impressionistic painting. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.138). Although the wings of a butterfly are no more than the size of a stamp, every butterfly presents an exquisite painting of all kinds!
When I was reading The Dao of Butterflies and The Book of Lost Butterflies, I was trembling whenever I was about to flip to the next page as I worried that I would see the pictures of butterfly larvae or pupae. (And I did! I bounced off and turned my sight in a swift as I could not overcome my fear.) Nevertheless, when it came to the section where Wu describes the eclosion, I couldn't help myself but read it again and again. For butterflies, the eclosion is probably not a bewitching process as some literature authors describe but the decisive moment of life and death. When a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, peels off its cocoon, and crawls to wait at a corner, time for this not yet flyable insect is frozen like an amber. It cannot praise, crave, move or enquire praises, craves, moves or enquires about the outside world but await quietly for its blood to flow through its veins and strengthen its body. For the lucky butterflies, time flows again within 20 or 30 minutes, permitting them to fly high in the sky with their glamourous second life. On the contrary, butterflies failed in the process become “winged ascetics” that can only crawl for the rest of their life until they become the preys. After all, flying is the only way for butterflies to realise their lives. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.152, 154). It's not surprising that when Wu found a butterfly with its wings and body displaced, he dreamed of it flying and exclaimed that a group of ants were carrying the wingless corpse to fly on the edge of the wall. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.150)
Meanwhile, I am reckoning the tenderness of Wu's heart while comparing the brevity and the length of a decisive moment and the formation of an amber.
My bed is placed next to a window with a treetop on the outside. Every morning, birds stand and chitter on the treetop, breaking the silence of dawn. But within ten to twenty minutes, the chattering sound ceases as the birds fly away one after another. Their get-up routine makes me hear the sunrise. However, due to my lack of imagination and nature upbringing, I have no clue about the species of the tree outside my flat nor the birds singing every morning. And despite my prolonged effort, I have not managed to similize their chirps accurately. Noisy is my only comment towards them. I'm insensitive to sound and pitch – it's like my hearing has yet been enlightened.
The saying of “the silence of the night” is indeed a warning sign for the creatures with insensitive ability. For people who often come into contact with nature, they will realise that the world has never been quiet. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.58). When I read through these lines, I sweated and recalled how Bill Viola, an American video artist, explained the importance of sound in his videos. He said that every place has its own sound, which is the sum of all sounds in an area, and coined it as the “under-sound”. When he made a video, he often edited it according to the under-sound of the place. One will gradually hear the “under-sound” when one stays calm and peaceful. (https://vimeo.com/64302190)
Through his intuition, Wu listens to the sounds of the animals in the wild attentively and find inspiration from the soundscape of nature. He then uses his words to induce readers to liberate their senses and audition.
Wu claimed that listening to the birds' chirps is plausibly a form of communication and imagination. Therefore, he recommended his readers to identify chirps intuitively (that is not to insist on transforming sounds into words) or imitate with whistles as they are useful for memorisation. (So Much Water So Close to Home, p.234). To give an instance, Wu described the sound of the black bulbul as the water drop from the sky, while the sound of the yellow-bellied prinia is like a soft thread gliding through a bush. (So Much Water So Close to Home, p234). Besides, Wu had gradually recognised that the “meow” sound emitted by the black bulbul is comparable to a tune about the recollection of love and the longing for a smile. When it resonates in one's ears, one will feel the sweetness and honey-like quality, as well as a touch of melancholy.
Regarding the Taipei Green Treefrog, Wu simply described its croak as the sound of "Autumn" – a sound wave that strikes one's sad nerve, affect one's neurotransmitter, and trigger tears. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.59) As for the croak of the Asian Grass Frog, it even makes Wu think of a big bang in the pitch dark universe. Its 500 Hz low roar pierces through his skin like hundreds of tiny needles which then follow his veins and stab into his heart. And when a group of Asian Grass Frogs croak, the sound turns into hundreds of big bangs travelled across light-years, bursting into Wu's eardrums, oscillating the air, boiling his blood, quaking the earth, and wiggling the summer days. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.145-46)
Wu claimed that he treats butterflies as friends instead of an animal species. For him, the mysterious charm of butterflies is originated from their everchanging life. Hence, he is always searching for ways to interact with butterflies. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.172) Not only does Wu observes butterflies but also writes books about butterflies. However, these publications are not studies on butterflies (he does not consider himself as a researcher). Instead, they are his literature creation that presents his opinions, feelings, and thoughts about getting to know another life. And in return, that life gives him shudders, inspiration, and a lighthearted attitude towards life when he looks back on the “human”.
Wu claimed that this kind of attitude leans toward the Weak Anthropocentrism proposed by an environmental ethics scholar Bryan G. Norton. Comparing to Strong Anthropocentrism, which weighs human beings as the core in any benefit consideration and adopts a felt preference to judge the value of things, Wu believes that Weak Anthropocentrism resorts to its comprehensive world view and treats nature with a considered preference. (The Book of Lost Butterflies, p.170-71). Consideration lays at the heart of Wu's writings. And in his profound proses, may it be how convoluted, every twist and turn of the plot provides his thought about the environmental ethics and ecological concern.
He often thinks that the human tend to see themselves as the creator. For example, they denounce the Megopis sinica as pests for girdling Citrus Trees. Apparently, God does not create citrus just for human. Regardless of the longhorn beetles or the Chinese Yellow Swallowtails are the same children of God as we do. Likely, the citrus trees cultivated by the human solely for producing quality citrus might eventually lose their pride of living as they have been deprived of the capability to fight and survive from its natural enemies in the wild. Sprayed with pesticide, they can no longer feel the joy of propagating by witnessing the gluttonous warbling white-eye feeding on their fruits and dropping their seeds on the soil but stand in solitude.
Wu believes that we simply can't count the raindrops fallen in the rain; what we can do is to face the indefinable beauty, danger, panic, and fate intuitively. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.244)
For living creatures, there is never a distinction between indigenous species and alien species but being the preyers or the preys. Once the preyers and the preys appear in the same habitat by some kind of fate, survival becomes their only goal. Likewise, every creature living in or around a lake is fighting for survival day and night. Although death is just around the corner, new lives emerge everywhere each day. (So Much Water So Close to Home, p.219)
Sometimes, the attempt of describing the croak of frogs can be seen as an exercise in imagination and language skills. It is also a way to bridge our world with the frogs' world, giving us the sensation that we are living on the same planet. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.59)
In similarity, photographers are seemingly wiping out their own will in “deadpan” photography, but through which the purpose of a landscape is revealed, making an impact on the viewers. And through the camera, human does realise the stupidity and offences they have committed. (Above Flame, p.105)
I am gratified that I have given up on pursuing the voguish “nature writing” before it is too late. Even though I do go hiking every once in a while, I cannot absorb myself in nature when I am in the wild. Instead, I always lower my head and focus on the overall landscape, lacking the desire and motivation in observing and understanding nature.
After reading The Dao of Butterflies and The Book of Lost Butterflies, I have broadened my knowledge and understanding of butterflies. But, have they aroused my interest towards butterflies? I don't know. However, as I am writing this essay, I do recognise that we are living in an absurd point in history – we are forced to queue up for masks in the middle of the night as a consequence of the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Not only am I revealing the superficiality of my consideration but also offending the act of consideration if I just repeat others' words by claiming the outbreak as a manifestation of the disbalance between human and nature. Besides, I do know that learning about nature through literature is second-hand experience. One can only learn and experience nature through one's senses and physical encounter. In the preface of The Dao of Butterflies, Liu Ka-Shiang reminded the readers earnestly that it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend the profound meanings of the dialogue with lives in nature writing by taking only a spiritual journey in literature at one's study room. (The Dao of Butterflies, p.26). Therefore, as a person who likes trees, I would start learning about trees and plants if I were to begin my nature expeditions.
And I did check the tree outside of my flat – it is a young and flourishing Chinese banyan.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Book of Lost Butterflies, 2000, Wheat Field Press, Taipei.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Dao of Butterflies, 2010 (2003), 2-fishes, Taipei.
Wu Ming-Yi, So Much Water So Close to Home, 2007, 2-fishes, Taipei.
Wu Ming-Yi, Above Flame, 2014, ThinKingDom, Taipei.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Search for Modern Taiwanese Nature Writing 1980-2002 (Liberating Nature through Writing, vol. 1) 2012, Summer Festival, New Taipei City.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Search for Modern Taiwanese Nature Writing 1980-2002 (Liberating Nature through Writing, vol. 2) 2012, Summer Festival, New Taipei City.
Wu Ming-Yi, The Man with the Compound Eyes, 2011, Summer Festival, New Taipei City.
Edited by Wu Ming-Yi, Selected Taiwanese Nature Writing, 2012 (2003), Thinkingdom Media Group Ltd., Taipei.