Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews fellow member Susan Holliday‘s creative guide, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart, and finds ‘wise friends on the path’ of seeing deeply into connections, and a fellow traveller in the landscape of human nature.


1,600 words: estimate reading time = approximately 6.5 minutes


“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
— Sioux medicine man Black Elk, quoted in Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

Lockdown, for me and many, once I’d got through the initial shock of the newness, became an opportunity to really look, listen. To see and to hear.

To hear the birds — in my case the red kites circling the Oxford streets where I spent a large chunk of lockdown time, and to see those birds close up for the first time. And the deer, emboldened by lack of traffic, explored the concrete and the human-inhabited world. It was a time to both see and hear inquisitively at first, and then more deeply, to enjoy the artfulness and insight, and to start to peer further into the nature of the physical, and the metaphysical.

A guide into the human heart

Of course, this is the first part of the process, to see and to hear, followed then by to feel, and to know. Finding guides, wise ones, therapists, gurus, seers — in Buddhism the term is sangha, ‘wise friends on the path’ — is crucial, otherwise we mainline on experience alone.

Showing the cover of Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart
Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart cover: ‘For the Love of Spring’, original artwork © Dee Nickerson

Therapist, photographer, and seer Susan Holliday has produced a clear, close, and wise guide to the process of deeply looking — a ‘when and how to, and what we might encounter’ book that should be alongside us as we navigate pandemics, liminal times, and all our explorations of this, the human journey. Natural insight is key to Holliday’s vision: it is what we all have, and have probably buried or veneered over with the hurly-burly of life. If we unpeel, and find ways back to it — through deep looking, creative expression, and seeing through the grief and the reasons we paper over our own cracks — this heartful insight enables a visionary life full of magic and wonder, connected to and part of the natural ecosystem of all life:

“Disconnected from the vital intelligence of our hearts we look to things, mountains of things, to replenish the void in our being. We plunder the natural world around us to fill the bottomless pit within. Our myopia, it seems, is costing us the earth.”

Holliday shares six client stories from her psychotherapy practice, which go deeply into how she can hold a client’s grief seemingly in her own soul:

“When the decisive moment came, I was able to ‘capture it immediately’ because my spirit was already full of him, full of his grief and pregnant with the shape of the beautiful carefree boy who once tumbled down the hills of his moorland home,” she writes of one client, named here as Jake. Of another, Cassy, Holliday says: “She has wandered into the heart of her own wilderness.”

Her professional beholding of clients, and leading them to a place of change, which she articulates so clearly and incisively, is matched throughout with her understanding of her own striving for seeing, and sensing the world through her own arts practice — through the lens. Although none of her images are found within the book, you can see her work shared on Twitter, and the book is full of references to the writers, artists, and activists who inform her journey.

The art of seeing deeply

Showing the coast and the North Sea, by James Murray-White
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

I was delighted when first opening the book to see so many quotes and nods to photographer Bill Brandt, whose black and white explorations of human forms on a beach, and wartime documentary stills, inspired me so much in my early studies in image-making, that has in turn informed the last 20 years as a filmmaker.

Holliday describes herself midway through Hidden Wonders as a “traveller in the landscape of human nature”, and this powerfully resonates with me. Equipped with an MSc in Human Ecology some years ago, I too set out to navigate that path through the hills of both articulated and mediated expression. Time and again, I need to return to that centred space of heartful hearing and insight from the natural worlds within — my own microfauna of emotional fungi and mycelial vessels of coursing blood.

A visual metaphor for the human heart
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

“At its best I believe that therapy is akin to painting, to playing an instrument, to speaking a poem or performing a play. Like those it has the potential to lift us, both seer and seen, towards a quality of vision which is equivalent to art, in that it opens us up to the richness, vitality and truth of our existence. So to explore the nature of insight, this book asks what painters, photographers, poets, sculptors and performers have to teach us about seeing deeply.”

There is a flow of both process and experience articulated with these particular clients and their often deeply painful and acutely alive stories, and in this expansive referencing of artists’ understanding of their creative practices, coupled with current advances in neuroscience, perception, and some religious philosophies. However, Hidden Wonders is to my mind a book that someway fills that space where retreating religions in the West have allowed our own creative expansiveness to fill, if we so wish it. It is a strong challenge, not to succumb to the industrial ‘achievement’ mindset, or be lashed by depression in response to systemic failures and collapse and all its latent traps that bind us to its synthetic portals.

I’ve been rereading this book while on a break in England’s North East, staying in a small coastal town ravaged by its mining past. Elemental materials were not long ago hauled out from deep bowels beneath the town, and now, as the pandemic opens into another era here, it is currently awash with regeneration funding, promoting mining museum culture and walking breaks across moors and stunning coastline. Instead of cracking the earth and removing its core, this locality now seems to be all about promoting looking, stretching, walking, seeing, planting, and engaging with a remediated landscape.

I’ve been fixated on walking past all that, nodding and chatting to locals, admiring the many huts of the local pigeon fancying group (some 30,000 birds kept here for racing and message carrying), and getting in some serious beach time along the coast: looking, and seeing past the material, soaking up the elements and seeking to understand myself within this process of stones and sand. Ebb and flow. Time and tide. Human industry and human leisure.

I sense that we, the human-sphere, are in what writer and eco-philosopher Mick Collins calls the ‘transformocene’, not the ‘anthropocene’ as some say, where we as a species rise to transform our reliance upon industrialisation, economic dependence, and the mechanical thinking that has grown from these mindsets. As Fritjof Capra describes ‘the systems view of life’: to finally fully understand our place within the ecology of all things, perhaps returning to the biblical Garden of Eden, or in the holistic sense of animal nature within the Gaian theory, as proposed by James Lovelock et al.

Choosing another path

While this is not a book dealing with climate grief per se, it does point us toward tools of awareness, which is the key to healing from the overload of trauma, and how we respond to and hold news of this climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Holliday acutely picks up on our possible human response of calcifying, or cracking, as “Our human ecology is becoming overheated. A sign that environmental stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our nature.”

She wisely returns with another choice: “We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.”

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

Social movements, uprisings, rebellions, protests — all are about change and resistance to old ways, changing seemingly dominant narratives of doing and exploiting that ultimately damage the earth’s resources and exploit ourselves as a species. These are vital community-building events; whether or not the object of rebellion or resistance is changed, a community has been formed around a ‘thing’, and now the energy exists — and change will come. Transformation will occur, and we will overcome. Transformation of our own selves and our stuck patterns, of subtle griefs and trauma, will happen, and in this vital book, Susan Holliday gives paths and examples to return to our natural insight, and live within ‘the vital ecology of the human heart.’

“Seeing through the heart of our sorrow, we discover a realm of human nature full of hidden wonders. Reconnected to our own source of replenishment and renewal, we might begin to cherish, rather than to plunder, the natural world around us.”


Find out more

Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart: How to see through your sorrow – a creative guide to revelation and renewal by Susan Holliday (2021) is published by Troubador Publishing, where you can preview the book. You can find out more about Susan’s work as a psychotherapist and her writing and photography on Twitter @SusanHolliday0 and at susanholliday.co.uk.

James also mentions eco-philosopher Mick Collins and his proposal of the Transformocene in contrast to the concept of the Anthropocene. You can read more in Mark O’Connell’s 2018 Permaculture review of his book The Visionary Spirit. In April, Mick has a new book coming out, The Restorative Spirit, and James has recently been filming Mick for the launch.

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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Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
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Seasons of Nature’s Gift and Natures Lost

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Gifts of Gravity and Light, an anthology of diverse writings on our seasons, and explores how, as we disrupt the living world, our relationship with it shifts, and with it ideas of ‘nature’.


2,980 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


“Rites of passage are — and should be — about an individual loss of innocence in order to learn the fuller knowledge of the next stage of life, but the young today are having to learn that the very world around them is in passage, a seasick kind of instability. For them, the correct maps are not the OS maps detailing ancient pathways, but rather future maps, showing coastal erosion as the seas rise and where all the horizons are bleak and every melting is an anxiety.” Jay Griffiths captures here part of how it’s not just the natural world around us that is changing with the climate and ecological crisis we have brought it — a whole world shifting into something that’s a nature/artifice hybrid — but our relationship with nature. And as that relationship distorts, so does our idea of it, the emotional register in which we experience seemingly ‘natural’ things. As our seasons change, so do their meanings within us.

A problem in reviewing an anthology is capturing its diversity of voices. And with Gifts of Gravity and Light, diversity is key. Editors Anita Roy and Pippa Marland have brought together a range of writers that’s rarely seen in so-called ‘nature writing’, speaking to a refreshing spectrum of experiences and engagements with the subject. More than simply a break from the genre’s white, middle-class, male traditions, it’s also a broadening of the professionalised model of what such a writer is. As well as Jay Griffiths — who has of course written much on nature and the wild over the years — we have essays from writers of fiction, of dance and theatre criticism, or poetry and plays, and more. The contributors are also artists, dancers, gardeners or rappers, and their personal and family stories include Cambodian, Caribbean, Ghanaian, Indian, Indonesian, Maltese, Romany and Zimbabwean experience or heritage, as well as urban and rural life around the British Isles. These, and the mix of sexuality and gender identities the contributors write from, all inform a rich array of texts. The collection’s subtitle, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, suggests this break but also the renewed, more complex view of nature and of being in it that we need now more than ever. There’s a sense of both being at home in the natural world and of being displaced within it, and it displaced within us. And this even before we consider the disorientating fragmentation brought by Covid, as some of the writers do: pandemic, lockdown, isolation. But there’s also much celebration of nature and humanity here — patterns, encounters, instances and experiences, small and large.

The dozen essays are reflections on the UK’s seasons, taking us through the annual cycle while revealing some of humanity’s fingerprints on it. Even the seemingly least threatening disruptions can be experienced as displacement. Griffiths writes on summer and on fear — fear experienced as a woman walking alone in the countryside, fear of the violence being done to the living world, our home, our seasons: “Summer itself is overshadowed now.” And each season overshadows the next, the sense of progression and endless cycling becoming unmoored.

Seasons of change - Gifts of Gravity and Light front cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light
Cover design Natalie Chen, images Jack McLaughlin © 2021

Spring – unseasonable seasons

Kaliane Bradley writes about spring and its rituals, but speaks from what is meant to be winter: a January that’s forgotten how to be a January. “When the blossoms are unseasonable, it engenders a feeling of dread in me similar to sensing the first hot and morbid congestions of a nosebleed. … It is four months early, and is yet to endure the January frosts. I hate living through unprecedented times, with all the rituals that hold us coming unstuck.”

Our personal experience of the seasons is perhaps a laboratory in which to investigate changing relationships with the rest of the living world. Seasons offer a complicated kind of stability as we navigate our lifepaths through multiple, entangled flows of time: an ebb and flood through successive years’ more-or-less predictable patterns of light and dark, heat and cold, colour advancing and retreating; the infinite daily variations of weather (‘if you don’t like this, wait an hour and you’ll get something different’); the slow-quick flow of lived experience that forms our personal biographies; the eddies of anticipation and memory that at once draw us forward and backward. Seasons evoke, capture and complicate them all, even in the ‘normal’ times we carry ahead within us as we move beyond normal times.

Pippa Marland reminds us that “When we think of ‘Time’ it sounds monolithic, uniform, the thing that takes us inexorably from the cradle to the grave in an unbroken line, straight as a Roman road. It stretches unimaginably far behind and ahead of us, framing our brief appearance. But when you look more closely, you see how complex it is — how its many strands weave together and sometimes fray apart. The linear and the cyclical are always moving through and across each other.”

This folding of time, of its different directions and speeds and associations, is also a feature of each biography. Testament looks back on his urban childhood as something where “for us, ‘nature’ didn’t come naturally. We got in a car and went somewhere. Middle-class aspirations, perhaps. The same reason my parents took me to plays that none of us understood.” In the city, constantly building and rebuilding on itself, “any little green had to squeeze between cracks, creep up the sides of drainpipes, the smallest flowers finding ledges to cling to in the brickwork of the abandoned alleyways I cycled through.”

But on those family trips to the countryside, “once out in an old pair of trainers in a field or woodland, the pleasures were all 3D. It was more than leisure, or even family bonding. It was a new landscape. My parents had allowed me to be part of an image which, as a person of colour, society had often not painted me into.”

Summer – long memory and the arm of return

Michael Malay feels his own displacement on Severn Beach, with memories of his younger self seeing it for the first time on his arrival in the UK, homesick but “excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose.” He wonders at the pull the estuary has on him, its unknowable nature: “Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think… But my head is whirring, a thought-flock of words, and I cannot step out of my mind, which is where I know the estuary begins.”

In contrast, Jay Griffiths writes powerfully of the experience of unfreedom out-of-doors: “frightened of being alone on the dusty lanes and paths … No amount of experience of the vast majority of good-hearted men-o’-th’-woods can ever quell the fear. When I want to get right inside summer like a seed in a sunflower, I find there is a grubby Perspex shield between me and the full experience I crave. I can see it the bridleway, the campfire, the tavern — but I cannot inhabit it as I wish. … I have been planted not out in the commons but in a pot where my roots cannot spread properly. I have been bonsaied. And I hate it.”

Summer for Tishani Doshi “is the long stretch. The arm of return. After the perseverance of winter and the breakthrough of spring, we are finally here again.” ‘Here’ is another multilayered thing: in her case, a village in North Wales experienced over decades’ of summers, her aim to “net over them all, until they are layered one over the other, a palimpsest of time, of summers.” It is also the memory of her mother’s time in the small village after wartime, on into post-industrial reshapings of the landscape. “I think about how we are made up of the generations before us and how nothing is thrown away. How when we meet it is always in the season of summer.” And how these holiday encounters with Welsh relatives informed and shaped her childhood in India. “I remember returning from summer back to life in Madras, desperate to reveal my new self to my old friends, wondering how their summers had altered them. Summer can be generous, an unending field interrupted by apertures, so it is possible to hitch your load of memories to someone else’s.”

Seasons of continuity - Gifts of Gravity ands Light back cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light – contributors

Autumn – a full-body experience

Like memories, life persists and shapes the emerging future, the new normal. Luke Turner says: “It can take a century after a tree’s death for its skeleton to rot away.” The last decaying remains of a copse in Belgium hosts not just new generations of birch and beech but broken stumps and the loops of barbed wire from the Ypres Salient of the First World War. For him as a teenager, it was the site of a school trip to the battlefields of a lost generation, when “in Britain alone, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of nineteen were caught up in the wave of patriotic optimism that swept the country in the autumn of 1914.” That autumn was not dry, as the military planners had predicted and therefore deemed suitable for the Allied offensive, but one of the wettest in decades. The ground conditions, exacerbated by the destruction of the drainage systems, meant that “the battlefield became a quagmire that swallowed, according to some estimates, half a million lives.”

War artist Paul Nash wrote home of a hellish landscape at Ypres, where “sunrise and sunset are blasphemous … mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.” And, as Turner writes, poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “pen captures the dead, the machines, the insanity, the weather, the structure of the trenches, the surrounding natural world … a blurring between corpses of men and trees.”

Anita Roy writes of a very different autumn day in southwest England’s Blackdown Hills: “Autumn on a day like this is a full-body experience. The lane is thick with fallen leaves and they look like they feel — crisp and biscuity; and they sound like they smell — like crushed chestnuts and bonfire smoke. It’s a nostalgic hit to all five senses…” The field she’s visiting — a private place, cared for by a friend — “is one of the very few places on Earth where the balance is right. It’s not wild — not really — but neither is it cultivated.” In an eery balance with Turner’s battlefield, this English treescape is fundamentally shaped by humans: “the timber chopped for logs, and smaller batches and twigs are fed through the noisy shredder … There’s no shortage of signs of human activity — but all this is poised, counterposed, or rather harmonised with the natural ebbs and flows, urges and surges of nature.” Where poppies rise from battle-torn soils and stand for remembrance of what should have never been, here wildflowers are now “allowed to emerge from the fallow soil” and speak to what could still be. 

Although this visit is in autumn, Roy recalls an earlier visit in the spring of our first covid year, when she fled to the field “pursued by general anxiety fuelled by the news of the pandemic and accelerated by upward spiking graphs. Alarming, horrifying, overwhelming as these were, you’d have thought by now we’d be used to it, given the similar infographics on climate change.” But, as unlearned lessons from the carnage of warfare also show, although we’re good at seeing patterns we’re not skilled at heeding them, of understanding connections between those things we find more convenient to treat as separate — in fact, prefer to actively disconnect in our imaginations. “Tree? Leaf? Wind? Stalk? Where does one end or the other begin? Humans! So busy trying to make sense of things, so good at not trusting what their senses do say. I give up trying to quieten my metaphor-making monkey mind. All those imaginary lines, axes and degrees, … tipping points and see-saw seasons, of life and death, summer and winter, future and past, and the impossible task of pinning down where is ‘here’ and when is ‘now’.”

As Raine Geoghegan remarks, “There’s something about autumn that is conducive to reflections and introspection. Perhaps it’s a time when the earth shifts into a gentler gear, where Nature calls us to be attentive, to notice the movements of wind and water and to wake up, open our eyes to the deep beauty that is all around us.” It is, as she says, an invitation to calm the mind and ask “What gifts are we given at this time of the year?” Her poems here are sprinkled with Romany words, or ‘jib’: Koring Chiriclo, the cuckoo; grai, horses; drom, road; vardos, wagons; atchin tan, stopping place. 

Raine sits surrounded by Herefordshire’s trees — oaks, willows, silver birch, spruce and beech that “all seem to be reaching for the sky” — and watches a nearby stream. “I find myself singing for the trees, an old song. The river she is flowing, flowing and growing, the river she is flowing, down to the sea. Oh mother carry me, a child I will always be. Oh mother carry me, down to the sea.

Like Raine’s Romany heritage, her personal experience of the disabling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia feeds her relationship with the natural world — a ‘Deep Living’ as she calls it. “I rest in the mornings and I take my time to do each task. I see more of what is around me, noticing the little things: the sky changing colour; a blackbird swooping onto the lawn and peeking at the grass; the way the moon glows in the night sky; small wildflowers bursting through a crack in the pavement. For me, everything comes back to Nature.”

Winter – the yield of the year

Writing this review in the cold spell brought in by Storm Arwen, I find that Zakiya McKenzie’s introduction to winter has a special bite: “My mother first came to England during one of the coldest winters that country had ever seen. Months and months where the days were inky and nights were frigid with lonely unfamiliarity … It was colder still to a child who had spent all her life in a place where the sun watched over her every move. That Jamaican countryside sun was her companion… In the new country, the sun held itself back leaving a murky array of shades of black, white and grey. The trees stood naked and stark … My mother did not know that the leaves returned with haste in the spring…”

Familiar seasonal companions become less constant and predictable when it’s the climate itself that’s shifting; winters we might have expected in past decades become rare — but can still catch us out. Winter’s “ability to replenish and renew, to be entirely different in one place from the next, reflects a thing recreating itself,” McKenzie suggests. “If we too spring and grow and then wither and die, can we not refresh and replenish too? In winter lies the assurance that, though the tether of our hearts is long and twisted, time is longer still.”

Amanda Thomson shares Scottish words associated with winter: Yield is the influence of the sun on frost, Waller a confused crowd in a state of quick motion (a waller of birds — and maybe of Michael Malay’s ‘thought-flock of words’), Snell the severe, sharp quality of the air. “On blue days when the air is snell, or in anticipation of it becoming so, ten, twenty coal tits, blue tits and great tits gather at the feeders, along with occasional woodpeckers, siskin and finches — gold, green, bull, chaff. When I go out to replace the fatballs, they fly behind, in front, overhead with a

                 Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                                                Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                   Thrrrrrrrrrrrr

                                                                                   (say it)

so close and in stereo, ruffling the air like an express train speeding through a smaller Highland station on its way south to Glasgow or Edinburgh.”

As Alys Fowler walks and slips along clay-mud paths in a park near Birmingham — paths that feel “wounded … hardening in the summer from the previous winter’s damage, like scar tissue, reopening in the winter, rotting and foetid” —  she brings ideas of displacement down to ground level. “Whereas soil wants to be firmly rooted, mud wants to go places, it oozes out of its home. It sticks, coats and clings to all that it touches. It wants to move on … because its particles are no longer knitted together by gossamer-thin threads of fungi and the microbiology of billions of small lives that make up the structure of the soil.” Our foothold on the surfaces of a world that’s in unaccustomed motion itself becomes uneasy and unstable, as we slip and stick and come unstuck.

This is a generous book, offering the small stories — of childhood, family, place, of growth and falling away and regrowth — that enable the big connections with the flow of the world. And maybe, in its multiple, diverse encounters and imaginative layerings, it helps point to ways we might yet adapt, adjust ourselves to shifting realities, by paying the world the attention that repays us with yet more to see and sense.


Find out more

Gifts of Gravity and Light, edited by Anita Roy and Pippa Marland, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2021). The title is taken from a poem by Simon Armitage, who provides an extract from his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an epilogue; fellow poet Jackie Kay’s Promise provides the epigraph, with a foreword by Bernadine Evaristo.

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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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.


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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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Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
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