Towards an Erotics of Place

Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape

My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…

Desert Quartet - the cover of the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.

It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.

Dungeness, southern England’s ‘shingle desert’
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

Desert Quartet — desert life

Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!

Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.

Mongolia
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories…  Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.

My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways. 

A desert calling

Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.

At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.

Desert Quartet - showing a page from the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
‘Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape’, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank

I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…

“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.


Find out more

Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).

You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, at Unusual Places. And there is more to discover at Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”

The Visionary Spirit: Awakening to the Imaginal Realm in the Transformocene Age by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, UK (2018). You can read an interview with Mick about the book: Awakening to the Transformocene Age. Mick talks about his previous book, The Unselfish Spirit, in this 2014 podcast and you can watch his recent talk at the Into The Wild Festival, Summer 2019, introduced by James.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding is the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”

You can watch James’ film Steadfast, and more of his films, on Vimeo. And don’t forget to check out Finding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts, “Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.

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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Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God

Illustrator and writer Mat Osmond explores shifting personifications of ‘animal mysteries’ in artist Meinrad Craighead’s powerful paintings to look for an understanding of how we might approach art practice and our apprehension of landscape in terms of prayer.


2,850 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes


“Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table”.

– D. H. Lawrence: Apocalypse, 1929.

Whom do you pray to?

In her 2005 book Findings, the writer Kathleen Jamie muses on the nature of prayer whilst sharing fish and chips with a friend. For Jamie, her friend’s question, ‘Whom do you pray to?’, posed in relation to her partner’s life-threatening illness, elicits an unequivocal response. Jamie prays, she replies, to ‘No-one’: to ‘Absolutely nothing’. But, in place of the appalling ‘crush of hope’, of the futility of ‘haggling with God’, Jamie offers a notion of prayer as, more simply, a ‘paying heed’: as an immediate, moment-to-moment attention to ‘the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing’.

It’s a memorable passage. But it’s Jamie’s friend — specifically, his inarticulate, off-hand retort to his own question, when she turns it back on him, ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’ —  that has acted as the spur for this rumination. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer has stayed with me, in part, because it leaves me with a certain residue. I see that I’m not quite in step with her dismissal of a Who — or perhaps, of a shifting plurality of whos — on the other side, as it were, of prayer. So, in a spirit of ‘neither of the above’ to the options Jamie’s passage seems to imply, I want to look for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, on the one hand, and our apprehension of landscape, on the other, in terms of prayer.

Something in her waters

Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.

I’m going to talk about Meinrad Craighead, an American painter whose career has included fourteen years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England. I’m going to talk about Craighead’s intense religiosity — her sense of sustained encounter with a feminine presence that first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.

I’m going to talk about how what happened to Craighead that summer afternoon remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist: as she put it, ‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water’. I’m going to look at how whatever it was that this experience introduced her to, has run like a central current through her work, a current that’s been closely associated, at all times, with her experiences of landscape as ‘sacred place’.

The readings from Craighead’s memoirs that punctuate this talk span her lifetime: from that abrupt childhood awakening, to a year spent alone, aged 28, at the mountain shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, to her eventual return from England, recalled from monastic life by a recurrent dream to what she considers her spiritual home: the desert landscape of New Mexico, watered by the Rio Grande. There she found, in the face of Crow Mother — a Hopi kachina spirit — that feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood. 

And I’m going to talk, in particular, about how this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscape has presented itself within Craighead’s work as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of those ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.  

O Fountain Mouth, 1989, by Meinrad Craighead
O Fountain Mouth, 1989
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

Angels talking back                 

If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. 

First, though, a word about angels and creative practice. In his 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Van Boekel offers a rough — and clearly, leaky — distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’ by artists working within an ecological paradigm.

On the one hand, Van Boekel observes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, with artists adopting an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitude to their environment.

In bringing Craighead here, it’s the other of Van Boekel’s categories that I want to consider, that frames art practice as ‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, one that involves a ‘dynamic, open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.

An assumption underlying Van Boekel’s distinction is that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. What I want to look at here, then, is the nature of the intimacy, the kind of seeing, to which Craighead’s figurative improvisations invite us.

But to name the kind of seeing I have in mind, I need to take a step back. Van Boekel’s framing of art as an emergent encounter with images that necessarily come ‘from behind one’s back’, and his labelling of this category of practice as angels talking back, are both informed by the work of the Jungian art therapist, Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and inviting their images to talk directly back to them.

Likewise, McNiff’s notion of art as a daemonic, transformative force, one capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and participant, flows directly from the work of the archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. So it’s to Hillman that I’m going to turn, here, for a way to approach the kind of seeing we find in Meinrad Craighead’s work.

Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992, by Meinrad Craighead
Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

The captive heart

It was at Montserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna. Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.

There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Montserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.

So how might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her overtly figurative improvisations, and her engagement with landscape? To answer that, I’m going to consider the way that imagination and prayer are approached in his seminal essay The Thought of the Heart, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: of what the heart is, and of what the heart does.

Before he can get to this, Hillman has first to set out our prevailing stories about the heart: those accreted fantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture. The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, a complex organic machine.

But prior to this, and suffused throughout our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seat of our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’ is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.

What would it mean, then, if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that ‘she works from the heart’? Especially if that phrase came parceled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion: of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour.

If any of that sounds familiar, then I’d suggest that what we find at work here, for all our post-religious, secular criticality, may turn out to include a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well with its persistent interior person — a person who we take to be somehow or other set apart from Van Boekel’s ‘circumambient world’.

And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this story – not least, within the confessional industries that it fuels – we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and — so the story goes — ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both’.

Himma

In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.

Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European Alchemy, and, through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma — a word which translates, roughly, as the thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.

Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart, is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing which arises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare ‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’

Woman with Ravens, by Meinrad Craighead
Woman with Ravens, 2000
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

An animal mode of reflection

The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies. 

Of the many aspects of Hillman’s reading of himma that I find illuminating in respect of Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as le coeur de lion, the lion in the heart. What this image remembers, Hillman muses, is that imagination constitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.

In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world — as its own efflorescence, so to speak. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it.’ And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.

And what of intimacy? What of the interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is ‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’. 

This is the species of imagination that I recognize in Meinread Craighead’s paintings. Not the ‘bending-back’ of ironic, critical reflection, nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What I see in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. Its something more urgent – more needy, even – than the self-bracketing conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And to my eye, the gaze that Craighead’s work returns to us offers something altogether more interesting.

In both Craighead’s words and her images, what I read, above all, is a dogged, needful return to the slow work of recuperation — to that ‘recuperation of the lost soul’ which both Hillman and McNiff would propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology, and prayer.

We began with the notion of art as a mode of attention to the self-presenting world. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, I find the way of seeing that Craighead’s work invites me to. And if her lifelong imaginal recuperation can be seen as a form of prayer, then I think that such prayer is also, like Jamie’s, an attentiveness — a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive ‘decorum’ which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘in the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’


Find out more

You can explore Mat Osmond’s words and images at Strandline Books

You can see more of Meinrad Craighead’s art at meinradcraighead.com. The site also lists her out-of-print books – The Litany of the Great River (1991), The Mother’s Songs (1986), The Sign of the Tree (1979) and The Mother’s Birds (1976), but also a current retrospective of her art and essays: Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God (2003) edited by Katie Burke.

James Hillman’s The Thought of the Heart (1981) and other works are available from Spring Publications.

Kathleen Jamie’s essay, Fever, appears in her prose collection, Findings (2005), published by Sort of Books.

Shaun McNiff’s Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination (1992) is published by Shambhala.

Jan van Boeckel presented his paper, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: Art Making and Intentionality in nature experience, at the Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, in Ayr Scotland in 2011. It is published by Intellect.

Mat Osmond
Mat Osmond
A visual artist, writer and essayist whose work's central question is what ecological recovery requires of us, faced with anthropogenic mass-extinction.
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Questioning Prayer? Space for creative thinking...   

"This post is framed, in part, as a response to Kathleen Jamie's rhetorical question 'Whom do you pray to?'. What notion of prayer, if any, bears on your own approach to the predicament of the Anthropocene, the large-scale changes that human activity has set in motion? Does prayer have a place in articulating a response to anthropogenic calamities? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on your approach to creative practice?" 

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