Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a British-Kenyan writer and scholar. Burnett was born in Devon, Great Britain, and her autobiographical book The Grassling is a detailed, highly poetic observation of nature and surrounds of her birthplace. Her need to explore the village of Ide and the surrounding hills, forests and meadows comes of her 80-year-old father’s incurable illness. Her father also wrote a book about this region in the southwest of England, entitled A History of the People and the Parish of Ide, which is a historical treatise on the land that the Burnett family owned and farmed for countless generations. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett follows in her father’s footsteps as an expression of her intimate connection to him and thus inscribes herself into the land.
Although Burnett, as her father’s daughter, should also belong to this piece of land, her belonging is less clear to others in the area. She writes:
“While others see him as belonging, even without knowing his story, they do not see that in me. So while I am pulled towards that place by all that is deeply knotted in me, I am pulled back by those there now, who cannot see into me”. (47)
Despite recurring rejection, then, Burnett marvels at and celebrates in melodic prose this rural setting and her attachment to it. Her position as an outsider is confirmed by her comparisons of this very environment to Afrohair and Kikuyu or Swahili expressions, which at the same time allow her to actively root herself and her perspective in this landscape.
But Burnett’s interest in the nature environment around Ide goes much deeper than the question of identity, in the truest sense of the word: she wants to hear the stories of the earth, and is also interested in the perspective of the grass and worms: What would the grass say about the soil? Or earthworms about their earthy realm? She tries to touch, feel and taste nature directly and sentences like “I always wanted to sit in a hedge” are not unusual. But her observations and conversations with her father also reveal her concern that she cannot properly explain or justify her role as an ecopoet. The book – much like Burnett’s poetry – manifests a desire to express a connection to nature. Burnett leaves to her readers the question of whether her work helps to combat climate change.
For my taste, at any rate, Burnett manages to write so elegantly and touchingly about nature, and what people can learn from it, that big issues suddenly feel more tangible. Through her intimate engagement of nature, she illustrates the absurdity of man-made boundaries and the entanglement of the local and the global in agriculture. She conveys that nature teaches an attitude towards life and the world if we only look. Burnett stretches out her arms in the air, makes herself as long as a tree, and announces with wonder and conviction that standing upright is probably the best posture in most cases.