Berry, Vanessa. Gentle and Fierce. Western Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2021. RRP: $26.95, 192pp, ISBN: 9781925818710.
‘I don’t like to overlook things,’ writes Vanessa Berry. Indeed, in her most recent essay collection—titled Gentle and Fierce—the Sydney-based writer, artist and academic explores what happens when we pay close attention to the world around us, not only as an act of memory-making and of writerly interest but also as a way of caring for and about our increasingly threatened natural environment. Broadly, the book’s subject is animals, including living things but also their representations in art and media, and ‘the objects that are made in their likenesses’ that have often been the author’s companions as a lifelong city-dweller (3). Subtle, intimate and often lyrical, the essays—each accompanied by Berry’s illustrations—thus consider animals as pets, zoo exhibits, wildlife, kitsch ephemera and more besides, drawing on her own collection of objects and associated memories and stories.
Throughout, Berry emerges as both a quietly perceptive observer and an inveterate collector often drawn to the out-of-place, the second-hand and the cast-aside. This eclectic, inquisitive sensibility is reflected in the essays’ wide-ranging subject matter and their curiosity regarding the animals and objects at their centre. ‘Frank the Bear’—one of the collection’s stand-out pieces—retraces the steps of the author’s younger self through the halls of a university biology museum in search of a taxidermy Kodiak bear she habitually visited with her grandfather, while ‘The Curragh’ recounts a visit to the Isle of Man, where a colony of introduced wallabies unexpectedly thrive. At times, the essays’ approach to the creatures in question is more sidelong; in ‘A Spider in My Cup’, for example, arachnids are less a physical presence than a central metaphor as Berry reflects on the chronic-fatigue syndrome and attraction to goth subcultures that characterised her formative years.
Attention, and particularly the kind of close observation often associated with creative practice, is a key concern as Berry considers not only how she coexists with animals and her place within the natural world, but also the ways humans do—and often do not—regard the nonhuman things with which we share our lives and homes. Describing herself as an introspective young person who grew into an adult with a ‘tendency towards noticing the minute and the obscure’ (63), she comes to embrace a mode of perception that offers up both genuinely gorgeous moments-in-prose—moths that ‘seem to arrive in a finger-click from the dusty air’ (19–20); a room ‘as complicated as a city’ (148)—and a means of envisaging ‘a web of life’ in which her autobiographical reflections are ‘as much the stories of connections with others, human and non-human, as mine alone’ (4). Thus, Berry suggests, ‘through paying attention to animals and their constant presence comes a heightened awareness that we inhabit a shared world’ (3).
This sense of interconnection can arise in deeply personal ways, as in the moving ‘Fly Away Bird’, about Berry’s patient observation of magpies following the death of a loved one, during which the birds became, as she writes, ‘surrogates for the friend I can no longer have by my side’ (177). However, this sensitivity to the relationality of the human and nonhuman is perhaps most sharply felt when the spectre of ecological destruction—a looming presence in a number of the essays—comes to the fore. In ‘Animal Chronicle I’, Berry reads about how deforestation is replacing tiger habitat in Sumatra with palm oil, paper and rubber plantations. She thus realises the extent to which she, like so many of us, is implicated in the broader patterns of consumption that simultaneously rely on and enable such exploitation:
As I look over the list these substances seethe around me, the pantry dribbling palm oil, the papers dusty and yellowing on the shelves. The rubber soles of shoes sit heavy in the depths of the wardrobe. Outside car tyres crackle over the road. (20)
There is a similar resonance to ‘Animal Chronicle II’, about the Black Summer bushfires and the mounting estimations of animal deaths—initially ‘480 million, then one billion, then more’ (152)—that were subsequently reported. As smoke blankets the city, we see Berry riding a bus, seated beside a woman with a frog-shaped phone case and another wearing a shirt depicting smiling lions. She thus imagines ‘a dystopian world of only cities and burning forests, where animals were extinct or rarely seen, only to be remembered through things’ (154).
In this context, attention becomes both necessary and potentially potent. ‘Animal Chronicle II’ references shifting baseline syndrome, a phenomenon whereby each generation takes ‘their point of reference for ecological diversity from their youth’: for example, though she might mourn regularly seeing Bogong moths, ‘children now would not even know to miss them’ (156). In this way, Berry writes, ‘noticing and recording the animals around us, and how they have shaped our lives, is a way to fight against collective amnesia’ (156)—to avoid forgetting what we have lost and stand to lose in the future due to climate change and environmental degradation. This is, then, not a book to be skimmed or rushed, but one that asks its reader to slow down, to consider and engage; to pay attention to its prose, but also to the world around us and particularly the creatures that inhabit it alongside us.
Gemma Nisbet is a writer and PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, researching objects, memory and the personal essay. Her work has appeared in publications including TEXT, The West Australian and a number of Australian anthologies. Her first book, The Things We Live With, will be published by Upswell in October 2023.