Writer Julian Bishop, living on the very edge of the metropolis, found a fascination with local verges during Covid-19 lockdown — and their previously unregarded nature took up residency in his imagination, leading him to a poetic challenge.
1,210 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes
Odd, but lockdown opened up the world for me more than closing it down. I live on the very edge of London (High Barnet, actually) in what we joke is the last road in London. Two minutes’ drive away, houses give way to fields and woods before being reined in by the M25. A true green belt.
Being a busy London-sort, my direction of travel used to be either by car to another conurbation or by Tube into a metropolis. Oh, I’d walk to the gym to do a treadmill run and take the dog around the block. Lots of treadmills to choose from, in fact.
And then all the treadmills stopped. My regular journeys into London, aimless shopping trips, poetry readings, my regular contemporary poetry workshop in Enfield — all ground to a halt almost overnight.
The lack of a gym was easy to fix — I started to run (and walk the dog) through the mysterious green acres I’d dismissed as ‘not real countryside’. And gradually my forays extended deeper and deeper, further and further.
Life on the verges
I discovered a bluebell wood, a marvellous open space called charmingly Saffron Green, an ancient yew wood, a stream I never knew existed, which is a source of Dollis Brook… I could go on. And when I ran along the roads, I started to look down and around rather than straight ahead. I became obsessed with the verges — so many wildflowers and verge-dwellers giving their presence away with little quivers in the grass.
And I began to notice what fellow ClimateCultures member Dave Hubble described in his recent blog as “the beauty in ugliness”, particularly on the unloved verges with their dramatic stands of hemlock, beefy cow parsleys and diverse grasses. My run takes me alongside a short stretch of the A1, which foamed with hemlock in June — how many motorists realised they were driving through a natural toxic cloud? And what I ran or walked past every day slowly took up residency in my head.
All this while, I’d been responding to lockdown through poetry. I decided to take up the challenge set by fellow poet Jacqueline Saphra (whose Poetry School classes I used to attend pre-covid) who decided to write a sonnet a day. I think I lasted about three days… and Jacqui went on to write a hundred (she’s been recording them and putting them up on Twitter).
The Sonnet Room
But I managed a couple of dozen — and noticed, as they developed, the predictable themes about missing loved ones and fear of the future gave way to these unremarkable and unloved stalwarts of the natural world. I took notes for what I called my ‘Sonnet Room’, which I decorated with all these wonderful so-called ‘weeds’. I dreamt of bittersweet, common hogweeds. The bluebell wood earned a sonnet of its own — as did Saffron Green, which was published as part of Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project.
Some of these new poems I’ve included in a submission for a pamphlet that I’m hoping to get illustrated and printed.
And other poems presented themselves beyond the sonnet form: a sunbathing grass snake spotted one day on the road verge, crawling over a pile of laughing-gas canisters; a hedgehog (sadly knocked over); the binbag-strewn ditches; a bramble next to a fly-tip, with the biggest blackberries I’ve ever seen…
So lockdown was (excuse the pun) an extremely fruitful time as a poet — and now I’m hooked. What will the bluebell wood look like in the dead of winter? Saffron Green frosted? The stream in flood? How will the verges look next year when the council cutters come back with a vengeance?
I discovered it on a run – something
I’d never done before, exploring
the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone,
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just feet away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane
rush by, the tang of arcane
carbon in its wake, now obsolete
as packed tubes or nine to five
and I was astounded to be alive.
Such silent nights – roads breathless as if they were infected. What we’d lost – constant traffic, the drizzle of exhaust – invisible and insidious as asbestos or the virus itself. Then a blood-clabbering sound emerged: a nightly chorus, foxes hollering like a hunt in reverse – as if hounded animals were fighting back. A beastly untameable disease stalked the streets while humans retreated like quarry to a den, our vulnerabilities sniffed out by a hungry meat-eater. Lives on pause for weeks – it smacked of wild animals getting their own back.
One month in and a wild rush hour quickened along the verges, nature slamming down hard on the accelerator – rigs of cow parsley towered over kerbs in Galley Lane, exploding into stars, rivers of bluebells lapped against the tarmac on a surge of sap fuelled by a million lost springs. Dandelions had no time to turn clocks into ashes when the lockdown stopped. Air charged with birdsong soured in the roar of a more familiar rush hour; when strimmers returned to crew-cut the verges, all our new rivers dried up.
Julian previously contributed The Hunt for Day 21 of our Quarantine Connection series, and some of his recent poems appear in a chapbook anthology, Poems for the Planet, alongside three other contributors: Maggie Butt, Sarah Doyle and Cheryl Moskowitz. Julian says: “The four of us launched it just a couple of weeks before lockdown at the Faversham Literary Festival in Kent, sharing a bill that included Jenny Eclair, Ken Livingstone and Everything But the Girl singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn. Our London launch was at Christ Church in Southgate which is registered as an Eco Church with A Rocha (an international network of environmental organisations with a Christian ethos).” Poems for the Planet is available from Maggie Butt’s website.
Julian mentioned Dave Hubble’s ClimateCultures post, On Re-emergence and the Avoidance of Clichés, where Dave comments: “I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful.”
Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project published Julian’s poem Saffron Green on their community website Herts Memories, in July 2020.
Artist and writer Dave Hubble reflects on his creativity under lockdown: how novel conditions and wanting to avoid coronavirus-saturated art sparked new work, drawing out potential beauty in the materiality of pollution and prompting the question, what next?
1,620 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes
Half a year ago everything stopped — galleries closed, exhibitions and performances were cancelled or postponed, and we did our best to make art in the spaces (and headspaces) we were left with. Some events went online but in most cases, welcome though that is, it’s rarely the same experience. Culture needs space and people in real life. We want a sense of texture, of immersion in the space, and the opportunity to ignore the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs even though we wouldn’t really.
Now, some of this is starting to reappear and we get to tackle our ‘rona-fear and decide whether we’re ready to be in the same places as other people, even in a limited way. Galleries have begun opening with online booking for limited timed slots and I’ve just had an email asking whether I’m still interested in exhibiting at a show originally scheduled for April 2020 (I am). I’m back in my studio a day or two a week, complete with rules for distancing, sanitising and air-flow. Gatherings, even outdoors, are still listed under ‘nope’. By the time that show launches in late October, I might be willing to attend the opening, we shall see.
However, this is all about what happens to art after it’s been made — what about our creativity itself? Some of us have managed to be productive during lockdown, others haven’t, whether due to lack of suitable space or simply having that part of them squashed by anxiety. I’ve been lucky in that I was able to set aside some space at home, and time off from gallery work and all those launch events meant I could make art. It wasn’t the same art though — I had neither the space nor materials to work on the messy junk-art installations I favour, so I dripped and splattered paint in the back yard when the weather was reliably warm and dry, but mostly I drew. Table + paper + pen.
Novelty under lockdown
I dug up ‘finds’, cleaned, drew and described them, and produced a faux-report to create a piece called Lockdown Garden Archaeology. One day I may get to show it somewhere, but in any case it’s something I wouldn’t have produced under other circumstances. During the process, I found lumps of charcoal in the soil, from a bygone barbecue presumably, and used them to draw. I wouldn’t have done that either and the same goes for the sound-pieces I produced linked to Zoom writing workshops and our virtual Open Studios event — a departure from my usual practice, and a welcome one, regardless of the reason. One question is unavoidable though — what next?
As we respond to the world around us, it’s easy to feel pushed towards making ‘rona-themed art, but we may not want to. Unlike my visual work, aside from an existing commission and my responses to a few workshops, my poetic output dropped to almost nothing. I didn’t want to write about the pandemic, but that’s all there was, so I wrote little. Free-writing reams of anxiety did not clear the way for other topics, and I felt no urge to add to the mushrooming of lockdown novels and collections. Some will be great, most won’t be, but maybe that’s not their purpose. As we reemerge, the same issue develops, and my mind is full of clichés — blossoming, chrysalis, survivors crawling from their bunker to blink in the sunlight. I do not want to make work based on these, not even ironically. I’m unsure whether my artistic output should ignore what is, currently, a hugely important aspect of life, but attempts to produce any ‘rona-based creative output simply leave me feeling flat. I am saturated by it and need to think about something else.
Polluted truth: beauty in ugliness
Of course there is no shortage of urgent topics to respond to. None are soothing, but that’s not the point from my perspective — I rarely produce primarily decorative work in any case, and so I return to the fundamentals of my practice. I am, above all else, a junk-artist focusing on the use of waste materials in my work. I am materials-driven, they are my prompts. Paint on canvas remains an artistic staple, so that’s the route I took last week, repainting an old canvas with a selection of bequeathed enamel paints that were sat there, waiting to be used.
I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful. This is of course not a new concept; in the 19th century, Thomas Hardy wrote “To find beauty in ugliness is the province of the poet.” As mentioned above, I’ve found the poetical route difficult recently, but the visual one less so, and a quick web search finds no shortage of photographs depicting the rainbow colours of pollution from industrial outflows and the iridescent shimmer of oil. Pollution is ugly as a concept, but there is a beauty to be found in it — one that is as unwelcome as any positives we may personally get from lockdown, whether a reappreciation of our living space, an opportunity to take some time off, a chance to reevaluate our working and social lives, or even acknowledgement that being able to do these is a form of privilege.
The outcome of mixing enamel and sand, pouring and brushing, is Yellow Boy. The sand forms bars and channels that the paint soaks into and fills, pooling in places to create a flat reflective surface. It is a small, artificial landscape, and the title is the name of a type of water pollution caused by mining, where iron (III) hydroxide precipitates to form a yellowish solid. Sometimes the compound is so concentrated that it can be collected and used commercially to make pigments. There’s a certain irony in this as some of the pigments will go on to produce visually pleasing results, and a satisfying parallel to the work itself.
So, how does this tie into the idea of re-emergence? The subject matter doesn’t, but it is the first piece I’ve made since lockdown which is designed to be hung on a gallery wall, and maybe even bought (you never know). It exists because I am once again looking towards events in the real world. It is heavily textured in a way that does not lend itself to online exhibition. I could take angled shots to show this, but that is not how it was made to be seen.
None of us knows if and when a second wave will happen, and if it does, whether it will happen everywhere or patchily with local lockdowns. We can plan for events to happen, knowing they might get postponed, but we’re used to that now. We can look at ourselves and see how we’ve changed. I’ve vowed not to let myself get as overworked as I was until March, and that includes being more selective about which art events I go to, focusing on those where the artists and organisers reciprocate and support others in the local scene. I know that doesn’t apply to bigger names, but on a local level, maybe we can break those cliques and barriers a little, overlap our Venn-circles, be a bit more mutually supportive. The Arts have been hit hard by ‘rona, we need solidarity. We need to change, shed some old ways, and fly… damn.
Find out more
Dave offered his poem and painting, A Time for Shedding, during Week 4 of our Quarantine Connection series, where you can explore 40 contributions from our member artists, curators and researchers. What has been your experience of coronavirus lockdown and the gradual reemergence from that? Have you found new ways to express creativity?…
Dave mentioned the Southampton Open Studios event he took part in, which this year was run online, and he has written about this at his blog: Openings (24/7/20). And you can read about the sound-pieces he produced in lockdown: Aroundsound (31/7/20).
The website of non-profit organisation Earthworks discusses the problems of acid mine drainage, such as the pollution that Dave has drawn on for his work: “Acid mine drainage can be released anywhere on the mine where sulfides are exposed to air and water — including waste rock piles, tailings, open pits, underground tunnels, and leach pads. Acid drainage is often marked by ‘yellow boy,’ an orange-yellow substance that occurs when the pH of acidic mine-influenced water raises above pH 3 … so that the previously dissolved iron precipitates out.”
On the question of finding beauty in ugliness, Dave shared Emily Brady’s paper Ugliness and Nature, published in Enrahonar: an International Journal of Theoretical and Practical Reason (45, 2010). Brady argues that we might have reasons to care about ugliness in nature, and therefore seek to protect it: “experiences of ugliness have epistemic value, they increase our ‘aesthetic intelligence’ through the development of an engaged appreciative awareness of ugliness and all forms of aesthetic value. How might this aesthetic intelligence translate into developing a moral attitude toward nature? Through the exploration of the negative side of aesthetic value, we discover, I think, a different kind of relationship to nature, one that is not friendly or close, but one that strains us through its uneasiness.”
Artist James Aldridge explores experiences of being ‘other’ as an ability to see beyond the boundaries of binary distinctions: offering us signs of a more inclusive queer nature, from a place that until now has been the edge.
2,670 words: estimated reading time = 10.5 minutes
When I was growing up I experienced my own queerness as not belonging, not being ‘normal’. When I came out as a young man I took the only label I felt was available to me and defined myself as gay, as other. Now at this time in my life I see my queerness as a gift, an ability to see beyond the boundaries between straight and gay, masculine and feminine, human and nature.
Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.
When I first came out as gay I tried to live in a city. I tried to find somewhere that I belonged by being with other gay people, but it wasn’t me. In the end we chose to live in a rural area, somewhere I feel I have more room to be myself, more opportunity to be with animals and plants and experience connection with the more than human world.
I’ve taken a long time to get here, and it’s not been an easy journey. At the point of writing this piece I am 47, married to my husband, Dad to our little boy and living in a Wiltshire village. I am at the start of a relatively new path in learning about climate justice, triggered by discussions with fellow team members at Climate Museum UK. This writing is based on my own experiences and beliefs. I can’t talk for people of colour, or others disproportionately affected by the climate and ecological crises, but I can share the perspective offered by my Queerness.
Paying attention to queer nature
So, at this time of ecological and social collapse, of climate breakdown, with the falling away of old structures, what role do Queer people and perspectives have to play?
“We need guides to help us move through this liminality (and) we have a right to bring our gifts to the world.”
— For the Wild podcast: Queer Nature
My practice as an artist who works with people and places focuses on enabling a sense of identity to emerge through embodied experience of, and artful response to, my/your immediate environment. The Queer Nature podcast talks about the skills and awareness that Queer people have developed as a result of the threat of violence, and the consequent need for hyper-awareness of and sensitivity to our environment. This ability to pay close attention to our sensory experiences, and the possibility of translating that into a practice of paying attention to non-human voices, is a by-product of the trauma that we have experienced as a community.
As Queer people have experienced the trauma of being disconnected from and endangered by mainstream society, so Western society as a whole has experienced the trauma of disconnection from what we have come to call Nature. These binary distinctions divide and separate us through words and perceptions in a way that doesn’t fit the underlying reality. There is no human/nature split, apart from in our thoughts. Colonialism has taught us that we can act independently of Nature, that we are both separate and in control, but as anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us “We can’t do anything at all, can’t be us, without so many other species.”
Being well with change and uncertainty
The Queer Nature podcast describes Queerness “as a becoming… that arises from destabilisation”. My experiences of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.
My arts practice, and the time that I have spent exploring and defining my identity through interaction with non-human beings, has provided me with a means of becoming-with the land. As my good friend the artist Kathy Mead-Skerritt reminds me, it is about “a realisation of our indivisibility”.
Colonisation has taught us that Nature is other, Blackness is other, Queerness is other. Inclusion may invite us in to give us a place at the table sometimes, a place within the city walls, but I value my access to the rich wild life beyond those walls, and the opportunity to live side-by-side with non-human others. Talk of collapse is scary, the ‘end of normal’ can be scary too, but for those of us that have lived outside of normal for much of our lives there is a certain familiarity to it.
“The ecological view to come… is a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definitive centre or edge. The ecological thought is intrinsically Queer.”
— Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought
When I was younger I worked to support the development of a sustainable future. More recently I have shifted towards learning to be well with change and uncertainty. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or have given up, but that I believe we need to be more humble, more outward-facing, and that art can help us with that. Art that is grounded in listening and witnessing, that allows us to slow down, open up and accept our place within vast interconnected systems, can change our way of seeing the world, even if only for a moment. As Nora Bateson writes, through the experience of making art “…we are pulled from our illusion that we can watch life from our safe place at the window. We are participants in the process.”
We can use art to unpick inherited ways of thinking and perceiving, that have led us to act without empathy for others, or awareness of our place within wider systems. As Jonathan Rowson has written, it is this lack of awareness that is the ultimate cause of the crises that we find ourselves in, “Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive, or to know what we know.”
If we want to move on from what Donna Haraway has called the Capitalocene, to the Cthulucene, from the end of one world to the beginning of another, then we need to develop a culture that values ‘multi-species stories and practices’, or what Haraway calls sympoiesis (making with) rather than autopoiesis (self making). Harraway chooses Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene to make clear that it is the system that is at fault, not us as a species. As Queer Nature describe it in the For the Wild podcast, the word Anthropocene relies on a “colonial idea that all humans are inherently bad rather seeing who has had power and enacted ecocide.”
Walking with others
When I first started out on a journey to explore what Queering and Queerness meant to me as an artist, it was as research for a proposal that I was writing. I’m yet to hear if my proposal was successful, but what I have ended up with is a language with which to make sense of my practice, and the world in which I find myself.
As some of us champion a move towards valuing difference, redistributing power and the right for people to live beyond binaries, others are responding with fear to the end of familiar ways of living, and the loss of colonial power. They react by building walls and promoting forms of politics that widen divisions. In such times it can seem too small an action to walk, talk and make, but that is my form of activism, researching how to be well with change by ‘walking with’ others.
“Walking-with is a deliberate strategy of unlearning, unsettling and queering how walking methods are framed and used…”
— Walking Lab, Why Walking the Common is More Than a Walk In The Park
What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.
“Since colonisation is a two-way street, working on the colonised and those who stand to benefit… decolonisation, breaking apart the myths and binaries of civilisation will benefit everyone, including… the land and non-human animals.”
— Jesus Radicals, A Holy Queering
We need to work together to support each other through these challenging times, and to develop ways of thinking, seeing and being that are based on relationship. We need to (Re)wild ourselves and the land through letting go of pre-conceived ideas of what is normal or right and pay attention to what the land itself has to teach us. (I put the Re of Rewilding in brackets because I’m not sure that Rewilding isn’t itself based on the idea of a return to a romantic past that never existed. Wilding for now feels less weighed down with baggage.)
‘Ecological restoration…should no longer be the anthropocentric revival of a pastoral utopia that may have been.’
— Rachel Weaver, About Place Journal
Part of this journey that I am on is about growing more comfortable with not knowing where I’m going. I am learning that there is no neat and tidy endpoint at which everything is picked apart and understood. That the world isn’t ‘out there’ to be saved, it is in us and we in it. And that nothing is fixed, because everything is connected, and every action, however small, can and does have an effect.
At one point I lost all hope of a future, as my knowledge of the climate crisis increased things looked more and more bleak, and I grieved for the future that my family had lost. Now I feel a sense of reassurance that being in the here and now, and acting from a position of being fully myself, as part of a supportive system, is the best and perhaps the only way that I can do good in the world.
Find out more
As a freelance artist, James works with a range of organisations, including Climate Museum UK which was created by fellow ClimateCultures member Bridget McKenzie as a mobile and digital museum creatively stirring and collecting responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Climate Museum UK produces and collects creative activities, games, artworks and books, and uses these in events to engage people.
For The Wild — an anthology of the Anthropocene focused on land-based protection, co-liberation and intersectional storytelling rooted in a paradigm shift from human supremacy towards deep ecology — includes an extensive podcast series. The episode Queer Nature on Reclaiming Wild Safe Space features Pinar and So, founders of Queer Nature, an education and ancestral skills programme which recognises that “many people, including LGBTQ2+ people, have for various reasons not had easy cultural access to outdoors pursuits, and envisions and implements ecological literacy and wilderness self-reliance skills as vital and often overlooked parts of the healing and wholing of populations who have been silenced, marginalized, and even represented as ‘unnatural.'”
In The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2012), Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, nor does ‘Nature’ exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realising this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought. ‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene is a profile of Morton by Alex Blasdel in The Guardian (15/6/17).
Why Walking the Common is more than a Walk in the Park by Nike Romano, Veronica Mitchell & Vivienne Bozalek is published in a special issue of Journal of Public Pedagogies (Number 4, 2019), guest-edited by WalkingLab, an international research project with a goal to create a collaborative network and partnership between artists, arts organisations, activists, scholars and educators.
A Holy Queering: Rewilding Civilized Sexualities (27/4/11) is part of a series for the Jesus Radicals collaborative site, which focuses on “undoing oppressions from a framework of anarchist politics and liberative Christianity”, explaining anarchist stances on a range of issues: “And, since our place within creation is largely ignored within Christian theology and classical anarchist politics, we explore our relationship with the environment, as well as human relationships with non-human animals.”
Finally, Randall Amster has published a recent essay in The Ecologist (3/2/20). Beyond the Anthropocene includes a very brief account of some of the alternatives suggested for the Anthropocene label, in a wider discussion of what this new age means for us and what our legacy might be and the agency with which we can shape that. “What might follow? The abject urgency of an eponymous Anthropocene makes us all futurists, practically and poetically, and suggests that the promulgation of any human future isn’t merely a spectator sport. … Dreamers and pragmatists alike can unite in the view that another world, a just future with bold vision, is both desired and required.”
Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, adds
This is the fourth post in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of expressing something of the more-than-human in the form of a signal for humanity. James himself says of this piece that “‘Signals from the Edge’ was my starting point but perhaps it has evolved into something slightly different. I’m sending a signal from where I find myself, which has up to now been at the edge.”
Unlike our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, which has a fairly fixed shape, Signals from the Edge develops as it grows. Each contribution stimulates the series to be more than it was up to that point. The edge shifts in shape and in scope and in what a signal might consist of, what it shows of us. Previous offerings have been a flash fiction, an essay/video, a short story — each with a separate reflective piece to accompany it. Here, they are joined by James’s personal essay, with his visual art embedded.
Future pieces will take the form further still — and notions of ‘signal’ and of ‘edge’. In creating the idea for this series, I speculated whether a signal might be a message from elsewhere — whether one meant for our species or one intended for another kind entirely, and which we overhear by chance. Or it might be an artefact of some other consciousness, or an abstraction of our material world. Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense amidst the confusion of human being. What would be your signal, and what edge might it speak from?
Artist Jo Dacombe shares an exercise she developed for students to respond creatively to the sensory nature of woods, and which she’s adapted for online engagement with nature during Covid19 lockdown as part of her Imagining Woodlands project.
1,760 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes + exercise
Each year, in May, I run a workshop for literature students at the University of York, as part of the Imagining Woodlands module, set up as a result of a collaboration between Dr Freya Sierhuis (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature) and me. My workshop would take place in a nearby woodland, at St Nick’s Nature Reserve, where we would tune in on the sensory nature of the woods and how we could respond creatively to this. This year, of course, the module fell under lockdown, and it was impossible to bring the students together, let alone take them for a walk in the woods.
My task, then, was to try to create something of the experience for students who were living far apart, many in other countries, and who were supposed to create something by working in groups, experiencing a woodland environment and a connection with nature. Quite a challenge.
Luckily, I had been working towards creating art installations related to woodland environments, so I already had quite a lot of material that I could use, including imagery made in various ways, video footage and audio recordings from woodland environments. I decided to create a series of online lectures, each followed by a creative task that would respond to some of my material which I could share online with the students.
Entering nature one sense at a time
I am based in Leicester, which, at the time of writing, is still under an extended lockdown. I am sitting in my garden writing this, enjoying the peace of fewer cars and I can hear a bird chirping to the north. The sun warms my skin and a gentle breeze is moving a strand of hair across my cheek. I am distinctly aware of the importance of the senses when outdoors. I am also keenly aware of how much time we are spending indoors and, for us in Leicester, this continues longer than most. With the students, I knew that many of them would not be lucky enough to have a garden.
One of my lectures starts by considering Richard Long’s early work entitled A Line Made by Walking. A beautifully simple gesture he made in 1967, A Line Made by Walking is simply that — the desire line created by the act of walking up and down a meadow in Wiltshire in a straight line, the simple interaction between a human presence and the landscape. I talked with the students of the importance of recognising the mutual impacts of humans in an environment, how it affects us but also how we affect it. I was trying to use Long’s work to break us free from the idea of the natural environment as a place to visit, a pristine place kept for our entertainment and recreation, but rather as a place that we become a part of when we enter and which we respond to and it responds to us.
If you have ever sat in a woodland environment for a long period of time, on your own, without moving, eventually you become part of that environment. The fauna around you will, eventually, begin to resume the activity that it was taking part in before your arrival. I think we forget that what we see is not what is really there, because as soon as a human presence enters the woods, the woods respond and the fauna, and indeed the flora, react to our presence. Animals hide and birds begin their alarm calls. But, if you sit still for long enough, they get used to you and resume their everyday activity. I have often experienced this, as I will sit for long periods in one place in a woodland when I am trying to audio record.
A Line Made by Walking makes us aware of this. I prefer Richard Long’s earlier works, because they are light touch. He only uses what he finds in a landscape, and creates a statement using his own movements or actions, using no more than his own presence and bodily ability; there are no machinery or tools involved, just moving and rearranging. The works are temporary and, once the wind blows, begin to disappear.
We also looked at some of Long’s text pieces, such as One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984. Many of Long’s walks he describes by making lists of words, and arranging those words into shapes or writing them across a map. This method works well to really focus on the things around us that we notice when we take a walk; Long notes the sounds, effects of the wind, smells, textures and weather from his walks.
My group walks are like this, too. Often, I try to get us to focus on one sense at a time; I ask people to walk in silence, show them how to think through their feet or we sit blindfolded in the woods. For my online workshops, then, I tried to create a way of experiencing something of these senses one by one.
The following are instructions for one of the tasks that I set the students, to create a poetry work in response to my video. The task followed the talk on Long and his work One Hour, and we discussed how poetry could be presented visually on a page; how a circle of words has no beginning or end, and how other shapes across a page can change the order in which you read words, and how we could use words visually. Moving and rearranging. The students produced some beautiful works as a result of this workshop, and I reproduce the activity instructions here for you to try yourself. The first part is an individual activity and the second is intended for work in a group; if you can, do share this post with others you can meet up with (at a safe social distance) or work with remotely.
And if you are still unable to go out, like me, then I hope it brings you a little connection to a woodland environment.
Imagining woodlands — an exercise
Individually: Watch the video below, entitled Woodland Canopy, clicking on Full-Screen mode. This is a video taken by looking up at the tree canopy in a wood. It lasts about 5 minutes. There is no sound on this video.
Try to watch the video without introducing your own music or sounds. The idea is that we are isolating one of our senses, just using our eyes, and not influenced by other senses. Try to watch it in a quiet space or use sound-blocking headphones.
Don’t expect the camera to move or much to happen. You need to really watch and focus for five minutes. In fact, quite a lot happens, but it is subtle. Try to tune in and notice every nuance.
As you watch, make a list of words, a little like Richard Long might as he walks. Just write whatever comes into your head. The words might be about what you see, feel or think; they might have imagined connections or spark memories.
You can watch the video more than once, if you like.
In your group: Now arrange to work with your group, virtually. Choose the favourite words or phrases that you wrote from the video. Share them with your group. You could do this with a Google Doc, on Zoom, or on a VLE Whiteboard.
In your group, try to weave all your words together to form one poem or piece of prose. Give it a title.
Think about how you will present this work. How will it look on the page? Or will you record it as an audio reading?
Why not share your poem or prose response to Jo's Imagining Woodlands exercise -- whether working alone or as a group -- in a Comment on this blog? And do share your reflections on this activity or a creative exercise of your that you've found useful during Covid19 lockdown.
Find out more
Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. You can explore the original module description, including a very useful suggested reading list.
Jo mentioned that this university activity usually takes place at St Nick’s Nature Reserve in York. St Nicks Centre for Nature and Green Living is a local charity created in the 1990s to transform a former landfill site into a thriving Local Nature Reserve. “The name of the site and the secular charity comes from the middle ages when the area was owned and managed by St Nicholas hospital and church.”
You might enjoy this video from Project Wild Thing, on the science of why engaging with nature is part of being human, and the benefits for our wellbeing. It’s part of the full film, which you can see at the Project Wild Thing website. And The Susurrations of Trees is a recent BBC Radio 4 programme that features recordings of the sounds of leaves on different trees, the words we use to describe these and the poetic and artistic responses to this experience of nature. “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall…” (Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree).
Jo Dacombe contributed Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands — a piece that originally appeared on her blog in 2015 — for Day 29 of our Quarantine Connection series. Her book, Imagining Woodlands, will be available later this summer. You can keep up to date with that by following her blog — where you can also discover the first issue of Imminent, a new zine Jo has launched with contributions from fellow writers and artists.
James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.
1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.
Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.
‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’
The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.
The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has
Spent its whole life In preparation for an instant, Learning to fix its being To a needle point flaring lightless
And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“
‘Falling always out of absence into open air’
Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.
We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.
In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.
Can we nail the world shut long enough to discover everything
I don’t want to know the name of the colour of this sky
And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.
A presence in the meeting point
The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.
I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.
James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.
Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.
And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough Will I learn to feel the wind Without wanting to know What it’s saying?
Find out more
Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.
James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.