The forest of myriad literatures

Galician literature is approaching nature writing from perspectives that oscillate between environmental activism and the loss of the rural universe

by Manuel Gago / culturagalega.gal

We are going to explore how nature and the land, strongly present since ancient times in the literature and imaginaries whose main focus is on Galicia’s identity, take shape in contemporary creation, between the traditions of writing and the new ecological activism and awareness. And to that end we spoke with writers Manuel Rivas and Olga Novo and literary critic Chus Nogueira.

In 1863 Rosalía de Castro published the book considered by critics to be the starting point of modern Galician literature: Cantares gallegos, a collection of poems that was the first example of cultured expression in the Galician language after centuries of marginality in print. And already in the second sentence of the prologue, the poet asserts what will be one of the marks of identity of the country’s literature for the future: its relationship with nature. Rosalía de Castro defines Galician poetry as ‘sometimes murmuring with the mysterious winds of the forests, sometimes shining with the sunbeam that falls serenely over the waters of a full, grave river that flows under the branches of the flowering willows’.

Since then, with its ups and downs, Galician literature has never drifted too far away from this intimate connection with the territory and landscape. Beyond the traditional fondness for landscape shown by the national movements that arose in Europe from Romanticism onwards, in which Galician culture itself took part through the Rexurdimento, or Resurgence, Galician literature has explored its own paths when it comes to approaching nature. Today, Western publishing is experiencing an effervescence of what is known as ‘nature writing’, which takes the form of essays on ecology, travel books, works of autofiction or novels that call for a return to the countryside. How is contemporary Galician literature dealing with the present circumstances? In a unique way, between a long cultural tradition and the new currents of writing.

Roots and avant-gardes
Manuel Rivas, writer and winner of the Spanish National Narrative Award (1996) for Que me queres, amor?, is convinced that the cultural substratum is a fertile ground for such interest. ‘We have a long literary tradition that corresponds to the way of being of the Galician people. Already in his first sermon addressed to Galicians, De correctione rusticorum by Martin of Braga, dated in the 6th century, the bishop emphatically attacks the environmental pantheism of the inhabitants of ancient Gallaecia. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that it was the recipients of the sermon who were right’, he says ironically.

‘In Galician literature, there’s an incessant avant-garde that works along those same lines of incorporating nature into it’, Rivas explains. ‘In mediaeval Galician-Portuguese songbooks, it’s nature that poets address their questions to. During the Rexurdimento, when the use of the Galician language was resumed, this condition was also present. Let’s remember that crazy Rosalía de Castro. And it’s the same with Xeración Nós [Generation Ourselves], and with the poetics it passed on to two of the great voices of twentieth-century Galician literature, Manuel Antonio and Luís Amado Carballo. Nature speaks through them. And, under Franco’s regime, it’s the land that expresses itself through Uxío Novoneyra. That cycle that reminds us of the triskelion of life, death and life is always there’.

How much of this enormous presence of landscape in Galician literature comes from cultured Western literary tradition, in which nature is always beauty and refuge? A striking aspect is that it is not easy to find books in Galician literature that speak of the need to be reunited with nature, to discover forests or to travel on foot along mountain tracks. In part, this may be due to the fact that in Galicia, with our strong family ties in the countryside, we never go far enough away from nature to miss it. For the radically contemporary poetics that Olga Novo, winner of the Spanish National Poetry Award 2020 for Feliz idade, has been building since her childhood, it has been like that, at least. Novo is one of the most singular voices in current Galician poetry. Her story is very different from that of other creators of her time.

‘Today we can speak of a certain fashion in European literature in which nature is sought as a spiritual refuge, but this is also a very anthropocentric vision. It uses nature as human resource for aesthetic contemplation. In my case, it was not like that. I was inside already’, she explains.

Novo was born in 1975 into a farming family in the village of Vilarmao, in A Pobra do Brollón. Immersed in the traditional farming culture of her parish and in oral tradition, the poet experienced a process of entry into literary creation that was unusual for a girl in the early 1980s. ‘I grew up in a house without books, and I began writing without having written literary references’, the poet explains. ‘I was the only girl in the village and had plenty of time for myself. My dad was illiterate but he had the great knowledge, the deep knowledge of the countryside. My mum was also endowed with extraordinary sensitivity. In the afternoons, I’d go to the village fountain and start writing. As I had no literary references, I wrote about my immediate, natural surroundings’. But that nature was not a landscape, at least not in the sense in which the latter is understood in the cultured European world. Novo remembers her father: ‘A peasant didn’t have the word “landscape” in his vocabulary. My dad would speak about the land, a small piece of farmland, an open field – that was the specific terminology about the agricultural use of the different plots. For peasants, farmland was not a space for contemplation but a work space or an arable space. But that doesn’t mean they were not sensitive to beauty; theirs was a practical gaze’.

This interior gaze meant that for Olga Novo the landscape was definitely not that space one looks at from the balcony or on a weekend excursion. ‘My poetry has to do with a total way of looking, which doesn’t reflect the binary conceptions our Western culture is based on. It’s a reintegrative way of looking at the cosmos’. Nature is not dissociated from the rest of human experience – it is human experience. And an experience of the rest of species. Years later, Olga Novo was to become a doctor in Galician Philology, but the original core of her poetry had already been created. ‘Two worlds converge in my poetry: that of the so-called “low” culture, which I experienced as a child, and “high” university culture. Very often, I’m asked why Derek Walcott appears in the middle of a poem about cows. I find no contradiction between those two worlds’.

However, in that same way of looking at the landscape, there is much more than the idealisation of a rural past. Manuel Rivas, who speaks in favour of the romantics who discovered the evocative power of nature for modern literature, explored the territory of the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, in his literary works from his first collections of poems in the 1980s and 1990s. It is true that this territory was already present in Eduardo Pondal’s poetry in the 19th century, or in López Abente’s poetry in the 20th century, but Rivas connected what was personal with what was related to the landscape in a new way. ‘The Coast of Death is my point zero. I like the idea of a people that lives on the edge of a cliff. We all live on what some people call the front line of risk; we’re on the edge, we’re from a constellation that lives on the margins’.

Nature as a constant avant-garde, submerged at the bottom of poetic creation throughout the centuries in the country, and nature as the cosmos that integrates everything, as a breath that is also perceived in peasant poetry but which is formulated as such in contemporary poetry. Two worlds to which a third vector has been added in recent years: environmental action, the awareness and the idea of the environment being attacked.

Poetry as reaction
‘What prevails in Galician literature is the model of an idealised nature and a landscape laden with an identity-based value. Our poetry emerged precisely from there. We’re also still very attached to many images of the rural world that are typical of the 19th century, sometimes idealised and sometimes pejorative’, says Chus Nogueira, professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela. Nogueira began to analyse how that attitude, summarised in the concept ‘ecopoetry’, was born at a given point in time. ‘There’s a greater willingness, a greater awareness of action around nature’, the researcher summarises.

For Nogueira, the starting point of this environmental reaction poetry was the social mobilisation against the construction of the Castrelo de Miño reservoir in the mid-1960s. This hydroelectric project, typical of the ‘developmentalist’ phase of the Francoist dictatorship as part of the regime’s industrialisation policies, had a strong impact on the rich wine-growing territory of O Ribeiro. In the atmosphere of the time, poems were born that reacted, within that climate of social commitment, explicitly against the attacks on the environment. ‘These works weren’t very highly regarded afterwards because they were seen as resistance poetry, very militant, and they didn’t enter the canon’, Nogueira explains. The researcher says that it is not easy to reconstruct the environmental poetic breath that was seen in Galician literature over the following decades, as it is scattered in all kinds of publications and is absent from the great poetry narratives of the first decades of Galicia as an autonomous community. ‘Perhaps the emergence of other types of poetics in the 1990s, such as the women writers’ boom, made these themes less visible’.

The impact of the Prestige
And then came the Prestige catastrophe in November 2002, the sinking of an oil tanker off the coast of Galicia that caused one of the largest spills off the European coast in recent decades and an intense – and certainly unexpected – social mobilisation. For Nogueira, that was a real turning point. ‘Up to four publications were produced involving virtually every poetic voice active in Galicia, something that had rarely occurred’, the researcher explains. ‘Some of those poetics were purely circumstantial, but there were others that were embedded in lines that had been developing and were now becoming more visible’. The collective books published during the months of 2003 and 2004, after the environmental catastrophe, show a new phenomenon. ‘I’ve talked to colleagues who’ve also expressed their opinions on previous experiences, but I believe that, as a phenomenon, the Prestige worked as a model of self-organisation, even in writing. It was something intergenerational and favoured or normalised ecopoetic discourses. Which already existed. At that time, Antía Otero was writing about eucalyptuses, and Calros Solla or Mariña Pérez Rei about windmills’.

The mark of the Prestige goes much further in the case of Galician-language poetry than in the case of prose. ‘I think this has to do with the militant function poetry’s always had and with the fact that it’s much more publishable, much more disseminable. A narrative project has greater complexity’, Chus Nogueira explains. But that mark can be perceived in collections of poems such as Galicia en bus, by María Reimóndez, which takes up the theme of the Prestige. In the novel Veu visitarme o mar, by Rosa Aneiros. Or in the work of Manuel Rivas himself, who was very actively involved in the platform Nunca Máis (‘Never Again’) and in the social mobilisations of the Prestige days. ‘I had to write many of the manifestos, knowing I was an intermediary. There was an excitement of civil society and of consciences. Apart from the objective reasons for the mobilisation, there aren’t many cases worldwide in which a similar movement has taken place for an environmental cause which has also had this local and universal dimension’.

Rivas himself later continued writing to denounce actions against the environment, even in the field of the essay, which was a rare occurrence among Galician writers of narrative and poetry. In Zona a defender (2020) Rivas defends ‘a new social contract with nature’. ‘Writing has to be about sensing-thinking, even in the sensory dimension’, Rivas maintains. ‘The deepest identification there can be with environmentalism is that language and words should be part of nature’. For the A Coruña-born writer, literature can contribute symbolically to drawing attention to the loss of biodiversity seen in recent years. ‘Literature can be a way of de-extinction. Especially thinking about the gaze, about the space of loss, literature can recompose, because literature stems from a fear, which is the most human of fears, which is the fear of abandonment. Today we can transfer that fear to the abandonment of nature’.

‘I think the fear has been reversed. Nature used to be the place of mystery and fear, but it’s now the place of refuge’. Rivas makes a reference to his talks in schools. ‘I notice the strongest connection with young people precisely through these stories of loss, of the species that are no longer there’.

Galician society is already, to a great extent, an urban one. And that may be driving those very changes in Galician literature. ‘I think the muse of the human being is awareness’, Manuel Rivas explains. ‘Where there’s the imposition of a distance, that’s where there’s also more awareness, or more curiosity. When people say that environmentalism thing is something for urbanites, it’s because it’s precisely in a city where we have this fear of abandonment’.

A transgenic countryside
Indeed, Galician rural society has been radically transformed in recent years. The desertification of rural areas and the ageing of the people living in them, the mechanisation and industrialisation of their soil through large forestry plantations and windmills, and the loss of the old ancestral culture are causing changes. And some poets are able to notice them. ‘That relationship Olga Novo, Lupe Gómez or Carlos Negro establish with a transgenic countryside in transition’, in which the old world disappears, replaced by a new reality in which the aesthetic transformations of space intersect. And which has been joined by feminism, also perceptible in poetry. ‘There are two manifestations. One in relation to what has to do with the collective work of women, as safeguards of nature, which appears in poetry around the Prestige. Another manifestation, which I find more interesting, is to show how both women and nature are victims of patriarchy and capital, to the same extent as nature itself. There’s a poem by Lupe about the Prestige that talks about her having an open boat between her legs. She feels raped as nature was by the accident itself’. For Olga Novo, ‘the body is just another animal. The fact of the integration of the body with the rest of matter implies the annulment of the hierarchy between the different species of the living’.

Since the Prestige, Galician poetry has incorporated environmental awareness, building on the old high and popular poetics of Galician literature. ‘Olga Novo, Luz Pichel, Emilio Araúxo, Calros Solla, Carlos Negro, Manuel Rivas, Marilar Aleixandre or Dores Tembrás’, Chus Nogueira lists. ‘The latter of these poets, who was born in 1979 and, therefore, didn’t experience those events of Castrelo de Miño, dialogues in Auga a través (Apiario, 2016) with the documentary Os días afogados, by Luis Avilés and César Souto, which tells the story of how the construction of the Lindoso reservoir flooded two villages. And Medos Romero, in A ansia do lóstrego, discusses the impact of the As Pontes de García Rodríguez coal mine on the territory and on society’.

‘All these changes and transformations will lead us to another rural world, different from the one we’ve experienced’, Olga Novo says. ‘And perhaps this process of transformation of the rural world is delayed compared to other areas of Europe, but it will end up happening because the superstructure isn’t interested in a culture that tends towards autarky and economic independence’. In serial essays, such as ‘O bosque dos cromosomas’, published in the magazine Luzes, Olga Novo wove the memory of that world that gradually disappeared around her village of Vilarmao. One of the aspects that make the texts interesting is the enquiry into the values, ethics and the role of the past and memory within a rural society that is often thought of in literature in terms of something that is already part of the past, or from ethnographic perspectives. A world in which the landscape is never contemplated, but used, as the poet’s father used to say, and which only makes sense when one understands what is invisible in it. ‘To read the landscape, we need to learn an emotional alphabet that isn’t taught in schools’, Olga Novo maintains in these essays.

During the talk, Manuel Rivas refers to one of his most cherished books, the novel En salvaxe compaña (Xerais, 1994). The narrator of the book is a raven from the Coast of Death, Toimil, who often stands on the chimney of the house and listens carefully to what the humans are saying. In En salvaxe compaña, animals are much more aware of themselves than the human protagonists. They know what they were in the past – men – but it is also clear to them what they are in the present: animals that observe the evolution of humans. However, the human characters in the novel are now only able to see them as animals and, therefore, as part of the accidental scenery of the surrounding landscape. Perhaps that is the role of literature. To give a voice to those we do not see. Even if they do not speak like us.

Project manager: Manuel Gago
Video: Pablo Goluboff
Redactors: Manuel Gago, Xermán Hermida, Santi Montes
Production: Alberto Carballido
Graphics: Novagarda
Live audio: Daniel Ameneiro
Audio Posproduction: Alberto Blanco Fernández
Translation: Nicholas Callaway