Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Ecopoetics and Environmental Challenge

Filmmaker James Murray-White returns to ClimateCultures with his review of a recent event on ecopoetics and our responses to environmental crisis. The one-day meeting was held at GroundWork Gallery in Kings Lynn on 1st September. 

 

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes   


Groundwork Gallery, run by powerhouse director Veronica Sekules, backs up its exhibitions of work focusing on the environment with events that deepen the discussion. This combination brings us in as participants, helping us to sharpen our understanding and to critically engage with the issues.

Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Arts and Ecopoetics Rise to the Challenge was one such bringing-together — the last of the 2018 season — with poets, academics, and ecological thinkers-and-doers gathering in a wonderful 14th-century building by the edge of the lapping River Ouse. This special event — organised with the British Ecological Society — gave us a day to dive deep, listen and engage with ideas of ecopoetics at the crossroads of conservation, restoration, and re-wilding. An opportunity to question all these options and find the best fit.

Ecopoetics and provocations

Judith Tucker and Harriet Tarlo talking about their work at a previous GroundWork Gallery event
Source: www.groundworkgallery.com

Curated by poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker, whose collaborative project on the disused Louth Canal is on display at Groundwork, the day divided into discussions on rewilding and on art or eco-poetic contexts. Andrew Watkinson, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, offered a provocation in his ‘reflections upon a changing environment’, reminding us of the ‘environment as natural capital’ approach that is so favoured by politicians and business leaders. He referred to the schism of thinking on this, as exemplified by leading green writers George Monbiot and Tony Juniper; it reminded me of a debate between the two men that I filmed at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2015.

What was refreshing about this presentation was Professor Watkinson’s deep engagement with poetry as a source of inspiration and knowledge, which he wove through his scientific explanations of the processes of change and the interactions within an ecological framework.

By bringing into his talk Cambridgeshire-poet John Clare, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrew gave a range and breadth to the provocation. And this came after renowned ecocritic and writer Richard Kerridge delivered a polemic on the world of ‘new’ nature writing: “Why is it difficult to write about environmental crisis?” he asked us; and “Where is climate change? Everywhere and tangibly no-where”.

Andrew Watkinson
Photograph: Pippa Lacey © 2018

Richard ranged from unpicking ideas of ‘adaptations of scale’ through to exploring the stories of ‘new materialism’, which (to quote Hannes Bergthaller, writing on Limits of Agency) “dissolves the singular figure … into the dense web of material relations.” Skilfully, he both beguiled and shocked his audience in this exploration of a new and uncharted territory and discipline, leaving us with the remark that ‘new nature writing’ “offers a refuge from modernity and the narrow social space.”

Wild conversations

Jonathan Skinner, an American poet, ecocritic and academic at Warwick University, sought to find a middle way in his ‘poetics of the third landscape’: a gentle meander into and out of the edgelands. To those of us that walk them, these liminal spaces suggest exciting possibilities and subtleties. His description of the “intelligence of the weedy, where lifeforms, rhizomes or rooting plants exist for co-created futures” resonated with me. And his introduction of the phrase ‘entropology’ brought to mind a recent exploration of the Blackwater estuary in Essex where, alongside the decommissioned nuclear power plant, I discovered the old electricity generating station, now completely overcome with wild nature, trees and scrub of all description topping out above the metal and phantasmagoric shapes.

Richard Kerridge
Photograph: Pippa Lacey © 2018

These three presentations in the morning set the scene for the day. Following on, artist Iain Biggs explored ecopoetics and art as ‘wild conversation’ through his work in deep mapping, and in explorations of the artist as “first and foremost, a deep listener”. This melted beautifully into writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s sharing of some of her projects, taking us into deep elemental knowledge, in Swims (2017) — poetry inspired by and written during wild swimming — and The Grassling (2019), a deep mapping memoir of three Devon fields that she and her family are connected with.

Her work — and then the subsequent session with readings from the featured writers — came as a refreshing tide of words that uplifted and delighted the audience. Down with the seals in the depths of the estuary flow, amongst the eco-poetics embodied in this day in Kings Lynn, in the deep county of Norfolk. 


Find out more

James Murray-White is a writer and filmmaker whose recent work has been in the areas of art and neuroscience, applied anthropology and the lives of poets. You can discover more about his work via his ClimateCultures profile pageYou can watch James’ film about John Clare at his Vimeo page. The George Monbiot and Tony Juniper debate he mentions took place at the New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford Arts Centre in 2015; his three-part film of the debate is available at Cambridge TV. James is GroundWork Gallery’s filmmaker in residence and you can see some of his films of artists at the gallery on their People page.

GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. The gallery’s exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The information on their Conserve? Restore? Rewild? event includes links for each of the day’s speakers.

Jonathan Skinner — one of the speakers at the event — has a short piece on What is Ecopoetry? at eco-poetry.org 

The event was organised with the British Ecological Society. The Society and Norfolk Wildlife Trust also sponsored Regarding Nature, GroundWork Gallery’s photographic exhibition (23rd June – 16th September 2018). “Regarding Nature is an exhibition which tells some big stories about landscape. Through the eyes of French photographer Chrystel Lebas and her scientist predecessors in the early 20th century, it focusses on the plants and landscapes of the North Norfolk coast.”

Energetic – Exploring the past, present and future of energy

In June, I visited the Culture and Climate Change exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society in London. Here, I review Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energythe book of one of the projects on display there: Stories of Change.

approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes   


One of the benefits of attending the exhibition on Culture and Climate Change at the Royal Geographic Society at the end of June – even on one of those very hot and sticky summer days in  London – was to meet up again with many of the project members and participants in the Stories of Change project. The project launched in Oxford in September 2014, at one of the TippingPoint events I was fortunate to help organise: an incredibly energetic and creative couple of days in the rooms, chapel and lawns of Exeter College; and here, in the RGS exhibition room, the results of that project’s creativity were on display, alongside two other projects from many of the same partners: Earth in Vision, and Provisional Cities.

Professor Joe Smith, Stories of Change Principal Investigator, speaking at Culture and Climate Change, June 2018
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2018

As we viewed the photographs and panels and recalled some of the project highlights, a soundtrack of voices played in the background, the results of a commission by artist Vicky Long, who had taken the submissions to the Stories of Change competition My Friend Jules and reworked these stories of personal relationships with energy into a play for voices. My Friend Jules had been devised by games designer Ken Eklund as a way of breaking down the barriers of abstraction which otherwise make it hard for us to visualise energy and just how extraordinary has been our development as a society dependent on the technologies, infrastructures and spatial relationships of industrial and post-industrial energy networks. Part of that story of stories is told in Ken’s post for ClimateCultures in May 2017, The Anthropocene Writ Small: My Friend Jules; and story is the underlying web of meaning through which this four-year project has worked to bring together an impressive range of practices, disciplines, places, people and objects.

Our travels with energy

That June event also marked the launch of Energetic, the book from the Stories of Change project, and I have enjoyed my slow and thoughtful path through its pages. Illustrated throughout with the bright, warm photographs of Tim Mitchell and Gorm Ashurst, the book weaves together the different strands and locations of the project in an accessible and informative guide to the questions and excursions into what energy means for us now, how we have travelled with it over the centuries of the industrial revolutions, and what shapes it might take in the 21st century in a world of changing climate and ecologies. As well as accounts by many of the team members and community participants, the book features work by a good number of the artists who took part in the project.

Nick Drake’s poem Chronicles of the Incandescent Lightbulb offers an effective frame for our reflections on our relationships with the immaterial essence of energy, embodied here in the material (but usually no-less invisible) convenience that is our instant gratification of holding back the dark:

You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark.

From a heartbeat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our interchangeable glass skulls;
to shine at your command.

Energetic editors Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk explain how the book — effectively a catalogue for a conceptual exhibition that by happy chance then did become a physical exhibition for a few weeks — “gathers insights from across this work … a representative sample of the creative writing, songs, photos and portraits, interviews, short films, performances and museum and festival events that we co-produced in collaboration with our community, creative, and research partners.” And that broad programme of work was partly inspired by the mid-20th-century Mass Observation movement, which recorded stories of change through the voices of ordinary people and communities. “Their innovative approach to valuing and supporting lay social researchers; their ground-breaking application of arts, social sciences, and media to the goals of social change; and their novel use of documentary tools were touchstones for this project.”

Playing with energetic utopias

Among the strands of creative research, therefore, a Peer Outreach Team of young people who face “a range of barriers to participation in mainstream education, employment, and training” were commissioned to gather the opinions of others and use a range of creative participatory activities, with the aim of avoiding what can be a “‘dry’ interaction” between academics and participants. And, as team member Bradon Smith recalls, this was complemented by further creative interventions in the guise of an energy policy game devised by participatory theatre-makers fanSHEN:

“A variation on the game started from the aim of creating an energy utopia … the playful tone and physical modelling element promoted speculative, imaginative and sometimes absurd suggestions, opening up space to consider afresh the challenges that energy policy faces … The task is to imagine a desired future, and identify the narrative that leads us there. All these are forms of storytelling in a speculate mode… Narratives of the future allow readers or listeners to imagine the present as history, encouraging the possibility of thinking differently about things we do not normally question.”

Whether engaged in the speculative future or the grounded here-and-now, imagination is a strong force for engaging with the world and with change. Sandra, one of the young people involved in the research, makes the point that “When you make it creative, it allows us to really think what it [energy] is in our lives, and think more openly about it … I like oil spills in water and it does that weird rainbow thing. I saw that and it reminded me how we use oil for electricity and that, and how a lot of it does get wasted.”

Photo Booth story
Photograph: Tim Mitchell © 2018

And, as Bradon Smith and Joe Smith recall of the My Friend Jules game mentioned earlier, “creative writing can bring to the surface (or, coyly, hide in plain sight) our relationships with energy in novel and engaging ways. All shades of opinion, and a mad mix of literary genres, were offered up by the players” in ways that “could not have been revealed by a survey, a focus group, a diary, or historical research. They have different textures and emotional reach. They do different work.”

Connecting with place and community

Like the project, Energetic traces the stories of energy through places and the communities who have co-evolved with them. In some cases, these are captured at a distance, as in The Last Miners, a BBC documentary that Robert Butler discusses for its narrative of end days in the UK’s deep coal mining industries — represented here by the 2015 closure of the Kellingsley Colliery in north Yorkshire — and which he finds curiously silent on context. For “there’s a wider story too: the closure of the pit marks the end of a 250-year-old industry that can claim some responsibility for the Industrial Revolution, the British Empire and anthropogenic climate change.” As he reminds us, “What had come to an end was quite specific, and it was certainly not coal.” The year the colliery closed, four billion tonnes of coal were consumed around the world.

And, of course, energy links every place where it is generated, distributed or consumed to the world-wide impacts of rising carbon levels in the air and oceans and to the spreading ecological and social damage that plays out in place and community elsewhere. David Llewellyn recalls the village of his Welsh Valleys childhood, where “the lower reaches of the small river, the Tyleri, that gives the valley and village its name was barely visible when I was young in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Its blackened, poisoned waters were hidden by mounds of shale and water as it dribbled pitifully towards another similarly decaying watercourse, the Ebbw Fach, which we called, perhaps somewhat affectionately, the River Stink.” Elsewhere in the valleys, and in the present day, Lisa Heledd Jones recalls her journey to a project workshop at the temporary Story Studio they set up in a closed community library:

“It’s an incredible journey. The view from the top is stunning … The view tells its own story — fields, water, trees, pit heads, and wind turbines. The impact of energy carved into the landscape in visible and invisible ways. … The mountains around Treherbert are in the process of another transformation – the Pen y Cymoedd wind energy project. This means 76 turbines dotted above the valley that will turn wind into power for over 200,000 homes and will be the largest of its kind in the UK mainland.”

Mel Rohse worked on the Story Studio project to engage and record local people’s stories and suggests that “it served different groups’ purposes without its message being diluted … although we are interested in the particular theme of energy, we engaged with people on their own terms”; echoing Lisa’s reminder “of something that is too easy to forget — communities don’t have one story. Communities are drawn from imagined lines we all draw around each other for myriad perfectly good reasons — but communities are actually made up of individual people with different experiences and backgrounds that form their opinions and stories … To really imagine what a community in Treherbert might or might not feel about 76 turbines, I would need all the hours left in my life and then some.”

Other places that feature in the multiple narratives of Stories of Change include the early industrial heartlands of Derbyshire, such as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, and Lea Mills in the Derwent valley. Film maker Bexie Bush has crafted an animated film, The Rumour Mill, from the stories told by local people. “Animation has its own unique and powerful way of revealing the soul of a subject” and her short film aims to “make a space for a wider range of views, times and places on the big topic of climate change and energy … But the film is not just about energy – it is also about community, living life to the full, British manufacturing, and most of all coming together to imagine change and bring it about.”

There is much well-grounded optimism — well-grounded because of the processes that brought it about, as much as the stories it contains — and one small word that emerges from the many words is the one picked out by Vicky Long in her account of the work she wove together from the voices in My Friend Jules: miracle. She picks it out of one contribution to that game — a story “about a moment on a tube train when a child learns about the miracle of energy” — and then again:

“‘Miracle’ was a word used by another contributor, and I wanted to hold onto this sense of the miraculous throughout the piece, suggesting that somehow, behind all the mistakes we make, something greater us at work, a miracle we are free to return to, work at, and reengage with in new and more successful ways.”

 

Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb – from: Energetic
Poem: Nick Drake © 2018

A large and complex multi-stranded project such as Stories of Change cannot be fully captured in a book, just as Energetic cannot be given full justice in a short and highly partial review. Fortunately, the project website is a major endeavour in its own right and offers a wealth of examples and information from across the range of places, issues and approaches. 


Find out more

The Stories of Change website offers a map, a timeline and a network as ways into the rich content on offer, which you can also access as a range of media, narratives and frames. Plenty to explore, share and make use of!

The book Energetic is available to view online and download via Issuu.

 

 

The Gift of Stories

Each contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects brings its author a gift of a book: one that had an impact on me when I first read it and which I've recently rediscovered on a trip to a charity shop. So here is my review of Jim Crace's imaginative 1988 novel, The Gift of Stones. The book goes to Sarah Dry for her excellent piece on her personal selection of three objects that trace one possible timeline of the Anthropocene. Set at the end of the Stone Age, on the cusp of change that overtook it and accelerated us headlong into a new world, a book could hardly be more relevant to our Age of Human: the Age of Unintended Consequences. 

The Gift of Stones is the story of a boy whose entanglement with the shifting world beyond the settled, conservative life of his village turns him into a storyteller. Set at the end of the Stone Age, it’s a parable of unlooked-for consequences as one age morphs into another. And it’s a tribute to the power of story-telling itself: “Salute the liars — they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” Story is a technology.

The narration is shared by the man this boy quickly becomes — when disability causes him to find a novel role as outsider-insider within his industry-fixated village — and his adopted daughter. She casts a wary eye back on his choices as a teller of tall tales, and the way he weaves in spurious detail from the natural world around them to add authenticity to his creations.

“As the bully becomes soldier, and the meany becomes merchant, so the liar becomes bard. Where is the shock in that? … He was never lost for words. He had a name for everything — or invented one. He’d out-hoot an owl, they said … The paradox is this — we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.”

She brings her own outsider’s view of the myopic villagers, who remain unaware of or unconcerned at the chaos on their borders. “My father’s ornateness as a story-teller cannot obscure the one plain truth that needs no hawk for decoration — that the village was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft. It made people purposeful, wealthy, strong” — and blind to change.

Design for North Country Theatres’ production of ‘The Gift of Stones’
Artist: Andy Thursfield © 2015
http://andythursfield.com/

Truth that offers no escape

This is a society of flint diggers, shapers, traders. Stone is the material basis of their culture, stones are what they fashion:

“What they sought was the undisturbed floorstone of flint at depths unknown to worms. This was the act that underpinned the village … Making flints, that’s all they knew. That’s what gave them heart. That was the ritual that kept them going, that filled their time, that stocked their larders, that gave them pride … It made them feel, We do exist, We are important even, We count. They were the stoneys, heart and mind. They blindly fashioned flints [as] gulls laid top-heavy eggs and the winds blew off the sea. That’s how the world was made and never pause for thought. It wasn’t made for boys with stumps.”

The boy — hardly any of the main characters are named — has been attacked by outsiders looking for flint weapons they’ve no intention of bartering for. The villagers must amputate his damaged arm. Ironically, although these craftsmen can fashion the sharpest blades for the job, none of them is able to actually wield the knife on the boy, and this task is left to the attackers — penance for their crime. But the diggers and makers have no use for a one-armed boy so, having been saved by the act that renders him valueless to them, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders far and wide, and when he sees a ship from cliffs a day’s walk away, his storytelling takes off. “What could I say to make it sound attractive? They wanted something crafted and well turned … The truth would never do. It was too fragile and too glum. It offered no escape … Already, in my mind, I knew the story I could tell that night.”

Through his stories — some true, some invented, most somewhere in between — he brings to the stoneys more of the outside world than they glimpse from their routine trading, but it remains a conservative, closed society. All their food comes in barter, making them completely dependent on the price their flint can fetch. The boy’s stories are entertainments for them, just that. His life on the margins of village life — much of it spent beyond its borders — is mostly a solitary one, and his physical and imaginative wanderings bring self-awareness and an awareness of what society means.

“People on their own do foolish things. They don’t know when to stop. They don’t know how. Now you understand why people live in villages, sniffing at their neighbours’ cooking and their conversations. They fear themselves and what would happen if the leash were cut and they were all alone…”

He travels further, from the cliffs to a saltland heath “sodden and yellowed by the winter … sweating in the sun. It smelled like rotten fruit, like beer, like cow’s breath. The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh.” There, he encounters a woman living alone with her daughter and her dog, and so discovers the smallest of communities, but one that needs more of him than simple entertainment saved for when the day’s real work is done:

“She hadn’t cared about my arm. Or knapping flints. Or stone. She’d said, Do this, Do that. Make sure the pot is safe. Here, take the child. And hold the dog. Can’t you kill a chicken? Could you walk down — take this bag — and pull some samphire roots? Before, I’d only ever idly stared through doors to watch the workers shaping stone, to smell their smells, to watch their lives while waiting for the Scram, Get out, We’ve work to do.”

Cover to The Gift of Stones, Picador / Pan Books edition 1989 Photographer: Geoff Brightling © 1989

King of the wild world

Further off, other communities make their living through what they create from the land; when our storyteller meets a group of farmers come to camp on the edge of the heath, he hears a new story from them, “of a farming year that was rhythmic as a drum.”

“The first note in the spring was emmer wheat. Then six-row corn. Then beans. Then flax, the last to bed, the hater of the frost. The goats did well all year on fodder mulched from leaves. Their milk and cheese were said to taste of elm or ash depending on the forest where they fed. In autumn there were unearned gifts in mushrooms, nuts and fruit. In winter there were bacon sides and apples wrinkled like a widow’s cheek, and grain from rat-free, stilted stacks.”

It soon becomes clear that the reason these men are on the heath is to exact revenge on flocks of wild geese that have gathered there. “They’d harvested the field, these airborne slugs,” and now the farmers would “show the wild world who was king by wiping out all geese.”

And so, despite its possibilities of plenty, this farming life is seemingly more precarious than an existence built on the steady need for stone tools and weapons, lived at one remove from raising your own food from unpredictable nature. Farming involves a war on the wild world, and the storyteller can spot the farmers’ false confidence in humans’ ultimate power. “If they’d stayed … they would’ve seen who was king of that wild world. When everybody’s dead, there’ll still be crabs and flies and carcass shrubs and weeds to strip and clothe the world.” (And, showing his native prejudice, he adds: “There’ll still be stone.”)

For his widowed heathland companion, however, the geese are an intimate connection between the wild and the human:

“… geese are people who have died. They say my husband and my boys are geese.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve also heard them say that geese bring babies, that geese bring dreams, that geese are blessings to the poor. I’ve heard it all. Myself, I know the truth. I’ve seen it every year. The geese bring summer and take away the frosts. You’ll see.’”

And it’s connections such as these that the storyteller takes back to his stoney community, crafting his gifts of story. 

“There was the story of the talking goose. It was snow-white except for a golden bill and feet. It said . . . and here my father could devise a goose-borne message that would tease whatever audience he had assembled at his feet. There was the story of the woman and her magic dog. They lived inside a house made out of hair. The dog could cook and stitch and start a fire. The woman hunted rabbits with her mouth. There was the story of the boy with the gift of flames. He could spit fire. Those people who stayed close to him need never fear the cold.”

Stones, chaos and coma

The storyteller’s experiences beyond the village teach him that “the world was cut in two — one for chaos, one for coma … All the outside world required was the liberty to pound and crush, to hammer and to bruise … It didn’t matter if the blows were rained on geese or huts or dogs or boys, so long as there were blows and careless brawls and sudden ghosts of hardship to blow good fortune down.” But the villagers remain complacent. Within their coma, they cannot imagine an end to the simple laws of tradition and economics that their lives are built on, are completely wedded to.

“This was the lesson they had learned whenever trade had slackened in the past: the outside world was never free from stone. There was no sickling of the corn, no scraping hides, no fishing, hunting, wars, no cutting flesh, no knives, no fires, except for stone and stoneys. Without the stoneys, men would have to fight with sticks. And what would women use to cut the cord when children came? Their teeth? What next? Were people just as mean as wolves?”

Eventually, the outside world — the world of chaos — reaches inside the borders of the village. But it’s a different kind of emergency that befalls the stoneys than the one that cost their boy one arm and their village one useful worker. Rather than simply the violence of weapons, of shaped stone turned back upon the stone shapers, this is an end to stone itself: stone as a subtle technology and staple trade. An end which even the storyteller failed to foresee (“There’ll still be stone”). Human ingenuity can always turn to other materials, fashioning other economies, and the war on the wild can take another turn, tightening as it goes and leaving peoples and places ruined in its wake. All of which is raw material for the storyteller when he spies more ships and men “armed with weapons that were gleaming in the oddest way. The stones that made them were as light as leaves; their arrows sped like swallows. Compared, our arrows were like pigeons, plump and clumsy in the air.”

No one will be wanting arrows like pigeons now that ones like swallows can be had, “this sharp and shiny leaf, this bronze.” And it’s this — more than merely the more efficient violence that this new thing, metal, unleashes — that heralds the end of the stoneys’ world, leaving them “as helpless as a beetle on its back.”

The gift of stones is the gift of all technology, as double-edged as the new bronze swords that will sweep away the age of stone. The gift of stories is also two-faced, with lies and truth intertwined. A novel that leaves to one side the prehistoric beliefs and sites — the megalithic monuments and the mysteries of their ritual uses which so fascinate us looking back and seem (falsely) to separate us from them — The Gift of Stones focuses on the daily ritual of precarious living off the land, living with neighbours and outsiders, centres and margins, and with landscape and nature. Stories that we might come to remember.

The storyteller looks back at his home:

“I knew no sight more sad than that — the sight of that small, kempt place, its walls as ordered and as uniform as ribs laid bare, its life as timorous, fettered and discreet as that enjoyed by barnacles on stone. And all around and all beyond, in blues and greys and greens, and fading far away into the whites of distance and of sky, was all the outside world. It seemed as if the outside world was like a mist and the mist was closing in. And all our world was shrinking, breath by breath. Someone, something, was hovering between our village and the sun.”


Find out more

The Gift of Stones — Jim Crace’s second novel — was first published in 1988 and is published by Pan Macmillan.

In 2015, North Country Theatres toured an adaptation of The Gift of Stones. The Director, Nobby Dimon, said in the production programme that the novel “appealed to me because it is about the origins of storytelling and by extension the origins of theatre, because its language has a poetry which is not found often in contemporary fiction and because its remote setting is both strange yet recognisable. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there, but Crace reminds us that even our remote ancestors share intellect and feelings with us.”

The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

Whenever a ClimateCultures Member contributes their personal nominations for our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I send them a book that's had an impact on me. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is certainly a novel that packs a punch, and I'm delighted to have sent a copy - as usual, discovered in a recent visit to an Oxfam bookshop - to Nancy Campbell for her post A Personal History of the Anthropocene - Three Objects #7. Here is my review.

Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Photograph: Francoise Lacroix © 2000 Source: Penguin Books

 

The Fall

Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.

Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.

One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?

The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.

No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones – more cunning, that’s all.’

And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.

Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.

For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.

I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.

An alien heat

Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”

It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.

They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Artist: unknown

Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.

Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:

‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’

‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’

She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.

She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”

It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.

A dangerous place

In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:

Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.

And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:

The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:

I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’

She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.

What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.

It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’

Sargasso Sea
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”

More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.

But what are you doing here you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.

Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.

And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:

The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.

 


Find out more

Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday FeatureSarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”

The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”

Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”

A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”

In the Path of Its Beam

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.