Queer River and Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place

Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.


3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.

It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.

Cover of Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs

Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:

“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”

Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.

Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.

Ecologies of place: showing Queer River - Boat and Body, an art work by James Aldridge
Queer River – Boat and Body. Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.

In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”

For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.

One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.

So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.

Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.

Disciplinary agnosticism, Geopoetics & queer perspectives

One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.

The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”

At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.

Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.

Ecologies of place: showing Vale of Pewsey walking pages, an art work by James Aldridge
Vale of Pewsey Walking Pages
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.

Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”

In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.

In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:

“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.”

If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.

As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:

“My experience 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.”

I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.

Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies

When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.

Ecologies of place: showing Mapping Connections, an art work by James Aldridge
Mapping Connections – Drawing with Alder Cone Ink
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?

Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.

On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.

Ecologies of place: showing collaborators on the Queer River, Wet Land project
Queer River Wet Land collaborators, Glasgow: Minty Donald, Cecilia Tortajada, Ingrid Shearer and Rachel Clive
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.

They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”

Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?

“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.”
— Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.

After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.

As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.

In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.

Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place

I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.

As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.

Queer River, Wet Land – Glasgow
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:

“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.”
— Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“
— David Bohm, On Dialogue.

Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.


Find out more

The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021); you can preview the introduction and several of the book’s chapters at their site. Iain has written about his motivations for co-authoring the book, with a brief outline of the chapters, in his ClimateCultures post, Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place. You can also read recent posts on his own blog, such as After Disciplinarity? Mutual accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency, where he shares the text of a talk he gave to Breaking Boundaries, a postgraduate student conference at Cardiff University. 

Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.

In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.

James mentions his exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, and you can read more about his approach in Slowing Down, Going Deeper on his blog. James is an Associate Artist with Climate Museum UK which was founded by independent researcher and creative Bridget McKenzie.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...
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Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.

A Year of Wonders Under a Circling Sky

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Neil Ansell’s new book. The Circling Sky, an account of a year-long immersion in England’s New Forest, is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy to place and belonging.


1,680 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes 


Neil Ansell is a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and insight, and as others have said of his work, it comes from a place of deep and sustained immersion — into the very essence of place. This new work, The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, demonstrates exactly that quality, offering a sensuous and at times challenging journey to get to know The New Forest in Hampshire, southern England.

Showing the cover of The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, by Neil Ansell
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

Ansell does know something of the Forest to start with, having grown up nearby. And the memories of his childhood forays into wilding — partly to escape the traumas and unknowing of this time — are made physical again by finding a stash of diaries; they act as a framework to refer to, and finally to grow out from, “the ghost of my childhood self”. The forest called to him “insistently”, and he determined to visit repeatedly over the course of a year; he writes in the preface reflecting back upon that year, just before we all were submerged into these pandemic times. And I’ve been reading The Circling Sky over the past weeks of this lockdown, so it’s been a great gift to visit through his eyes a place I know only a little, walking alongside such a guide during these days of homebound reflection.

“It has been a year of wonders, my forest year. I have had the opportunity to experience so much that I had never anticipated: great clouds of spiralling butterflies, a sea of orchids, flowers that I had never even known existed, sudden, unexpected sightings of creatures of great beauty. A nightjar watching over me as darkness fell, falcons on the wing, hawks and honey buzzards deep in the woods. I have listened to the cackle of the geese on the marshes, and the aching trill of the last curlews. I have heard the woodlark sing, for all its lost chords, and the comforting call of the raven, back at last. The year has been thick with scents, heather and furze and bog myrtle, peat and pine and the sour smell of a boot full of bog water. These things give life new meaning.”

Forest – place and belonging

This is the ideal book to help us navigate a way out from a lockdown deep nature observation to whatever this post-lockdown time may entail for us as a species. It is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy for space, place, and all the beings that inhabit and pass through — as we do.

He muses on clearings as spaces to reflect within: both the clearings in the forest and the experience of coming out of dense woodland into a wider space, and also internal clearings: finding some space inside ourselves, to think, rest, plan, get on top of things — to meditate, if you like.

Sometimes he walks with maps, and seeks out remnants of human history and habitation; as the ‘dominant’ species, we seek out our ancestry and can turn up astonishing neolithic knowledge, as well as exasperation and fear at the trajectory we are taking ourselves upon.

The recent history of ghettoising gypsies, who had made some of the forest their space for five hundred years, needs to be widely known, and I’m thankful and yet further saddened to read the evidence he shares of the forcible eviction of the Coopers in 1963 — the most recent manifestation of internal cultural colonialism happening on this small isle, following on from the Highland and Fenland clearances, the Irish Famine, the Enclosure Acts and more: ‘civilisation’ turning within itself in grotesque power.

Some of his visits are focused: to revisit some of his childhood camping spots, for example, or to go to certain areas in the hope of engagement with the wild belonging beings; or else they are sometimes simply “an aimless walk in the woods”. Both approaches provide him with an abundance of riches — the glare from a goshawk’s eye is one that springs out, and he finds the rare Dartford Warbler (the ‘fuzzacker’), in a gorse-bush, after many years of looking (“they look like little plums; plums on a stick”). Elsewhere, “great numbers of painted lady butterflies flutter from heather flower to heather flower. This must be a new generation, born here this summer.” And

“I can hear laughter echoing in the distance — not human laughter, but green woodpecker laughter. I look about, but can’t see it: I can’t pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Instead I see a pair of black and white spotted woodpeckers just overhead, rising and falling in flight like they do, crossing the heath from wood to wood.”

Dartford Warbler
Photograph: Dean Eades Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dartford_warbler.jpg

One eye, however, is on the human scale and how this dominates the land: 

“For the past century or so, the Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission, so there is some commercial woodland here, though the understanding has been that these plantations are not allowed to account for more than a relatively small acreage of the forest. And as public awareness has grown with the understanding that all woods are not equal, and that large, evenly-spaced stands comprised of only fast-growing conifers may result in something close to an environmental wasteland, some have been replaced after felling by a mixed woodland more in keeping with the spirit of the place.”

Photograph showing beech trees in the New Forest
Beech trees in Mallard Wood, New Forest
Photograph: Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13444789

As a novice bird-knower, I’m absorbed in the book’s engagement with birds as individuals and as groups, and his thoughts on migration routes, seasonal movements, and how they engage and belong, within this specific forest eco-system. Stone-chats, or fuzz-jacks, are ones I’m going to seek out. Another thriving group of animals in the forest are the odonata: the dragonflies and damselflies, abundant thanks to the wide diversity of wetland habitats there.

A circling sky, an obligation to see

Ansell’s book is many things and will inspire readers in many ways. What stands out the most for me is that it is both a deep personal meditation on place and belonging — told by the many visits he makes, the more-than-human and the human that he encounters — and the way of describing place. 

“As a writer who loves nature, it would come very easily to me to just walk through the woods, take joy in the animals and plants that I come upon, and depict them as creatively as I can, along with the many small epiphanies that they bring me.

“But it no longer feels that purely observational writing is enough. The time has gone when I could even write a private nature diary, just for myself, and turn a blind eye to the wider implications of what I see. To delight in an encounter with a rare and beautiful bird, while wilfully ignoring why it is rare, why it is threatened, is itself a deeply political choice, and one which no longer feels supportable. And really, nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to see the world for what it is, the bad as well as the good, and we have to blinker ourselves to keep on pretending that it is not broken.”

Within a broader polemic on our human relationship with the living breathing more-than-human that completely surrounds us, and how we’ve got to this place of separation and duality, he identifies (him)self as both observer and that-being-observed, and caught within the inherently broken state of being that has created this divide. It is a state that is absolutely wrapped up in the system of resource use and destructiveness. Neil Ansell’s powerful and urgent writing and observation in The Circling Sky is part of the great process of leading humanity back to a merged connection with Earth.


Find out more

James Murray-White‘s pre-lockdown work was completing Finding Blake (2020), a feature documentary exploring the contemporary relevance of artist, poet and mystic, William Blake — with further explorations on the Finding Blake website. His lockdown ‘project’ has been co-ordinating Save the Oaks, a campaign to rescue oak saplings that were scheduled for destruction in a potential ecocide of the UK Government’s making. A future post-lockdown work project will explore regenerative agriculture in the UK, in documentary form.

James is also co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Rewilding and took part in a recent discussion on Rewilding Humanity as part of Ubiquity University’s Humanity Rising series. As the host, artist Stardust Magick, says: “Rewilding is a golden key to how we can reverse things such as climate change, species extinction and pollution. Since we are part of nature, we can also rewild ourselves: inducing states of being extremely present, inspired, expressed, confident and playful.” In this session, James joined author Jay Griffiths, rewilding coach Rachel Corby, poet Huw Wyn and wild food expert and teacher Sunny Savage for personal discussions of why we would want to create, support and encourage rewilding efforts and how we can rewild ourselves. You can watch the recording of their discussions, introduced by Ubiquity University President, Jim Garrison (with the rewilding conversation starting at just over 2 minutes into the recording).

Neil Ansell has been an award-winning television journalist with the BBC and a newspaper journalist. His previous books include Deep Country, Deer Island and The Last Wilderness. The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest is published by Tinder Press (2021). You can see a short video from Little Toller Books of Neil discussing his earlier book, Deer Island, and leading a wild life.

The New Forest — ‘new’ when it was created in 1079 as William the Conqueror’s ‘new hunting forest’ — has been a continuously managed landscape for a millennium. It was designated a national park in 2005. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Climate Conversations to Save the World

Environmental researcher Matt Law reviews an online performance about climate conversations: an interactive journey inviting us to consider how different connections and storytelling could have led to a different world today, and help save the world for tomorrow.


1,180 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


Are there pivotal moments where, if only somebody had said something different, the progress of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock could have been slowed? What if you could be transported to one of those moments? What choices would you make? Would you know what to say? In a talk to TEDWomen in 2018, US-based Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tells us that the most important action we can take on climate change is to talk about it, not by bludgeoning people with depressing facts, but by connecting the risk to your audience’s core values. Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s How We Save The World, commissioned from Coney by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), explores the ways our conversations about climate change can shape our futures, by putting decisions in the hands of the audience.

Meaningful interventions

We are time travellers, guided on an interactive 75-minute journey by our reassuring and informative pilots (Naomi Stafford and Richard Popple, who also represent all of the characters we meet on our journey and are a joy to watch) to choose from a selection of places and times where we could make meaningful interventions. At a house party in Clapton in 2009, can we plant the seed of an idea about consumerism and plastic waste in the mind of young Fergus, playing in the kitchen with his Hot Wheels; or reassure Lucy, drinking gin on the balcony, who has abandoned her vegan lifestyle, having become jaded with the complexities and enormity of the sustainability choices we face?

Before audience members are called on to talk to the characters we meet, a disembodied voice, the voice of NERC-supported research, tells us about some of the psychology that impacts our choices — the rewards of consumerism, our reluctance to speak up out of fear of being judged; or the physical science of climate change, such as the influence of atmospheric carbon dioxide on clear air turbulence, and importance of forests for diversity.

Showing an image from How We Save The World
How We Save The World
Photograph: Thomas Scott on Unsplash

How to save the world

Interventions having been successfully made by audience members at Clapton, we are presented with further choices of times and places to visit. Can we suggest a more successful term than ‘global warming’ at a focus group in Dallas in 1989 (the winning suggestion from our cohort was ‘Bonfire of the World’), or convince the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in early nineteenth-century Bingley of the dangerous path those profitable factories and fossil fuels are leading us down? The crunch choice comes in South Sumatra, in 2005, where we — now assuming the role of islanders of differing financial circumstances — are split into break-out rooms to discuss the choice between allowing PalmOilCo use of our forest, with an immediate monetary benefit, or to allow EuroNGO to protect the forest, giving us less of a financial reward, paid less immediately. Do we lift our families out of poverty now, or listen to the person from half a world away telling us what is best for the planet?

Matt Law’s screenshot from How We Save The World

Placing the audience in control of the decisions, making a game out of climate conversations, forces us to think with empathy and care about the interests of the characters we are talking to. What angle can we use to help them see that the consequences of climate change will be to their detriment too? And how confident are we that we can do that on the spot in front of an audience of strangers? Drawing from research in environmental psychology, How We Save The World distils the idea that storytelling and human connections are among the most powerful tools in climate action at its most immediate and intimate level: the way we talk to each other about the part we can play in climate action.


Find out more

Matt Law was one of five ClimateCultures members who took part in recent conversations with fellow member Julia Marques for her series Directing the Change, which Julia discussed in her recent ClimateCultures post, Conversations with Work That Connects. In his interview — which you can see in full as well as an excerpt in Julia’s post — Matt discusses how he is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department there: The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group.

You might also like to read a previous post by Julia, where she explores theatre as a space for thought about our options and what climate change means for us individually.

How We Save The World is a story game by interactive theatre-makers Coney. Written by Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s, it was created in collaboration with environmental scientists and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was first presented in 2018 at The Natural History Museum in London, and then re-imagined for our new global context as a live online performance, on Saturday 20th February 2021. “By looking at how we got to where we are today, together we’ll explore moments where small actions might create a ripple of change in the world – and learn how to take that forward in our own lives.”

You can read an interview with Michelle McMahon hereConey will be announcing new performances of How We Save The World in the next couple of weeks — do check their blog for news.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an independent, nonprofit organization that gathers a diverse array of informed and influential voices tracking man-made threats and brings their innovative thinking to a global audience. The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them. The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet. When the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, the greatest danger to humanity came from nuclear weapons, in particular from the prospect that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for a nuclear arms race. The Bulletin considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007.

Katherine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. You can join the 3.8 million people who have watched her TEDWomen 2018 talk The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it — and then talk about it. 

Matt Law
Matt Law
An environmental change & sustainability researcher interested in environmental archaeology and public engagement, working on a theatre project to explore climate change's disruption of everyday lives.
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Owned by the Wood in Winter

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes 


Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.

“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”

Showing the cover of 'The Wood in Winter'
The Wood in Winter’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Cover illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,”  a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

An Ice Age in miniature

In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”

Showing robins and holly in winter
Robins and Holly
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”

‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’

Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.

Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.

“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”

Showing a vixen in winter
The Vixen
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

Find out more

The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).

You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.

Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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