Geographer Martin Mahony introduces a second collection of objects from his ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ students, and how our Museum of the Anthropocene’s ‘centrifugal’ stories resist casting all of humanity together as progenitors of our new planetary age.
1,200 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes
It was a great pleasure to work again with a really engaged, intelligent and creative group of students on this year’s run of my course ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’. As usual, the course was organised around students selecting an object which they thought told us something important about the history, politics and culture of this proposed new geological epoch. Mark and I are delighted now to share a sample of the submissions to this year’s on-campus Museum of the Anthropocene, in our first expansion of its online sibling.
Centrifugal stories of a planetary age
In his essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea environmental scholar Rob Nixon argues that we need to “counter the centripetal force of the dominant Anthropocene species story” — i.e. the idea that it was the actions of all of humanity, the anthropos, which led us into this new epoch — “with centrifugal stories that acknowledge the immense inequalities of planet-altering powers”.
Scholars and practitioners in the arts, humanities and social sciences have been prominent proponents of such centrifugal stories. Often trading under alternative monikers for this new epoch, such as the Capitalocene, Manthropocene or Plantationocene, these stories identify very specific social groups or systems as being responsible for the violences and upheavals of planetary change. As such, they are stories with very different moral and political lessons.
This new selection of museum submissions offers a range of centrifugal stories which, in very different ways, help us to reckon with the unequal geographies of the Anthropocene. In this centrifuge we encounter turbulent relationships between humans and a range of nonhuman plants and animals, which together paint a powerful picture not just of domination and exploitation, but also of resistance, kinship, and hope.
Cultivating our Anthropocenes: flora of domination and resistance
Reece Page’s analysis of the suburban lawn-scape connects the expansion of these green deserts to earlier expressions of ‘white rule’ over colonised natures and peoples. The projection of lawn aesthetics into imagined extra-planetary futures invites us to consider how visions of environmental futures can transplant past violences into an increasingly unequal present.
Anna Wyeth draws on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work as a fitting counterpoint, showing how the interdependence between North American indigenous communities and the sweetgrass plant has much to teach us about dismantling colonial ecologies and structures of thought, and “nurturing reciprocity” in their place.
A similar dialectic of domination and resistance is present in Max Drabwell-Mcilwaine’s exploration of plantation gardens. These small plots of land in the margins of historical monocrop plantations saw slaves and indentured labourers cultivate very different socio-ecological realities to the regime of domination that defined plantation agriculture in the past, and which continues in different forms today.
The signal crop of the slave-plantation economy, and the one that helped push the British economy towards industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, was cotton. Jake Kiddell explores the centrality of the plantation system to the industrialism which many have identified as the start of the Anthropocene. He draws a direct line from that to the more recent phenomenon of ‘fast-fashion’, and how planned obsolescence in the textiles industry allocates harms and benefits unevenly across the commodity chain.
Companion stories — the kinship of fauna
Amelia Weatherall looks at another key substance of the industrial revolution — coal — but does so through the history and metaphorical power of the ‘canary in the coal mine’. She shows how the use of canaries as gas detectors has been reprised in the use of bird behaviour as an early-warning system for the climatic changes brought on by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. And she makes the case for attending closely to the fate of coal mining communities themselves during the transition to new energy sources and industries, as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of an uncertain socioeconomic future.
Finally, Josh Fowler explores another feathered companion species, the pigeon. Tracing a bracing history of violent extinction, wartime interdependence, and urban antagonism, Josh offers the evolving human-pigeon relationship as a powerful parable of human-nature relationships in the Anthropocene.
Together, I think these short, centrifugal texts provide a powerful argument that the ‘immense inequalities’ of the Anthropocene are played out not just through relations between groups of powerful and marginalised people, but through a web of relations with a range of nonhuman others: relations of domination and exploitation, but also mutuality, reciprocity, and kinship.
Find out more
Step Inside the Museum to view all six of the new objects submitted to the Museum of the Anthropocene, alongside the contributions from previous students on the third-year Human Geography in the Anthropocene undergraduate course at the University of East Anglia. And the main Museum of the Anthropocene page provides introductory reflections and is where we bring together Martin’s post, including the one for our inaugural collection in 2022; Object-based Learning in the Anthropocene sets out the practice of “putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience” as a means to “transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.”
Martin quotes from Rob Nixon’s 2014 Edge Effects essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea, which provides an invaluable, concise and insightful introduction to the interdisciplinary appeals and political controversies of ‘the Anthropocene’ as a concept (or range of concepts). Nixon cites an earlier project to curate an object-based exploration of these concepts – the ‘Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam’, which later generated the book Future Remains (edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett and reviewed for ClimateCultures in our post, The Mirrored Ones. His words there also stand as a further signal of the value of Martin’s work with his students and our expanding Museum of the Anthropocene:
To give the Anthropocene a public resonance involves choosing objects, images, and stories that will make visceral those tumultuous geologic processes that now happen on human time scales. With this in mind, the Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam has assembled a lively array of object-driven stories. The work on display here seeks to give immense biomorphic and geomorphic changes a granular intimacy. Collectively, these Anthropocene stories have the power to disturb and to surprise, hopefully goading us toward new ways of thinking and feeling about the planet we have inherited and the planet we will bequeath.
A human geographer interested in the contemporary politics of climate change, how future atmospheres are imagined, constructed, represented and contested and historical geographies of environmental knowledge-making.
Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.
3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes
My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.
Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature
The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.
What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.
The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.
My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:
Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.
Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.
To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.
The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.
In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.
As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”
I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.
Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.
Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.
Cycles of water, cycles of history
The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.
As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:
The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.
After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.
Seasons of change
When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.
Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature.
In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.
This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.
The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.
As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.
All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.
Find out more
You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.
Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”
Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”
Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.
2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces
Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” , followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) , and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.
Listening to regional futures in New South Wales
In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia , where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.
In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.
However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.
As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.
Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.
Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.
My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes .
What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.
Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.
The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come .
Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.
Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.
“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.
“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”
Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.
“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”
Conversations with discomfort and hope
Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.
Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.
“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.
“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”
Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.
“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping.
“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”
Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.
“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.
“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”
As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.
“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.
“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”
Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures
It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights  and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.
I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.
The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”
As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.
The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.
The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story.
The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time.
The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.
In their third collaborative post reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach,Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter explore the provocations this book offers for ecoart practices and discourse — complementing their earlier discussions on the book’s activities and case studies.
2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 20-minute video
In their previous collaborative posts on this book, participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd, and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter reviewed the earlier sections, which provide ecoart activities and case studies from around the world. The book ends with this section — a series of provocations where contributors from the international Ecoart Network focus on theories underpinning ecoart practices, offering ideas for creativity in different learning environments and communities. As you will see in their video discussion, our four artist-reviewers found many opportunities in the wide-ranging provocations on offer.
The full set of eleven provocations is:
— Allodoxic Interventions as a Form of Ecoart — Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning — A Framework for Ecosocial Art Practice: Integrating Guattari’s Ecosophy and Action Research — The Art of Inquiry: A Learning Manifesto — Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change: Interview with Newton Harrison — Village Triangles: Complexity with and Beyond Systems Thinking — The Role of Life-Centered Learning and Interdependency in an Interdisciplinary Curriculum — Curating Ecoart Practices: Interview with Amy Lipton — Scores for Climate Justice — Organizing the Approach to Sensitive Conditions: Applying a Boolean Analysis to Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism — A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief
Validation and realisation
Claire and Nicky both selected Hans Dieleman’s Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. For Claire, the piece resonated strongly: “The whole provocation to me felt like a massive validation. Yes, finally someone gets the relevance, the point of what I’m actually doing! So I just read the whole thing with a huge smile on my face.” For Nicky, this provocation had meaning because of a lack she perceives in modern education:
“I had enormous freedom as a child. I was given the ‘bones structure’ of how to do something and then sent off to play quite a lot, which children today seem to rarely get outside of Forest School. I’ve come to realise more and more that for some children the whole of school is just not a good idea … I love the fact that at some point in there, he says artists have the ’embodied and enacted knowing’, so they are key. I thought that’s interesting, that’s where I feel the connection to it. Yes, I feel that that for me is not difficult, it’s effortless — and trying to explain it to other people is so hard.”
Nicky also highlighted Newton Harrison’s Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change as a good example of using an interview to convey the value of collaborative approaches and as an alternative format among the more essay-like pieces: “I liked the fact that it was written as an interview; I found it easier to read than a piece of text if the text had been that long.”
And Beckie also chose this example to focus on, sharing that she was attracted to Newton and Helen Harrison’s work together as artists. “That was why I went to it because I’m really interested in how you do more collaboration around ecoart, and work with people so you can bounce off them and not do things alone. I think that’s a really important way forward for art. It’s not doing things in isolation, it’s doing things in community, and it’s working against that whole myth of the artist being this solo creative genius doing things on their own — that doesn’t work in the world in the same way anymore.”
Ecoart creativity for grief and love
Genevieve chose Ruth Wallen’s A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief, having also looked at Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. Whereas the latter offered a boost, speaking to the value of the practice, the provocation on ecological grief “spoke to something deeper in me. … It made me think of the work of ONCA and the Remembrance of Lost Species Day and that sense of ritual practice.
“And this feels like it’s coming from a very different direction, really facing that pain, that difficulty, and the total avoidance of that that happens a lot. This feels like the real guts of it … It’s hard and it’s scary. And I think the framing of this as the last piece in the book felt really powerful. … This is our real lived experience, loss. There it is, at the end of the book, before the bibliography, the closing of the book. The quiet power of that.”
This sparked a very interesting series of reflections between all four on our approaches to death — of people, of habitats and species — and how art might have a role in dealing with these endings. Might ecoartists create rituals for loss, for example, maybe taking provocations from the book as a way into using or developing some of its earlier activities and case studies? Beckie reflected that “This is why a lot of us do it. It’s at the heart of why most of us are here. And I feel like there’s this incredibly fine line between grief and love, where they’re always intertwined. How do you get into the heart of that when it’s culturally avoided? … Drawing that out with some compassion and some humour is a very tricky but potentially beautiful thing.”
From provocations back to activities
Reflecting on this section as a whole, Claire said that although the text of some of the provocations might seem wordy and “you do have to sit in a quiet space with a cup of tea where no one’s going to interrupt you … once you get into that it kind of takes you somewhere, I think: it is a provocation, like a space where you enter … It feels different to the other two sections in the sense that I think I could have just sat there with a notepad and pen and made loads of mind maps…”
And delving into the final section of a book like this does naturally invite reflections on the book as a whole and on this shared experience of it, as Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky did in the final part of their time together. This was also an opportunity to think about how the book might be updated or adapted in ways that fellow artists might find even more valuable.
Nicky: “I think it’s a really, really good resource, and I know that over time I will go back and look up some more of the people and the ideas. I really enjoyed, last time [the case studies] going in more deeply and looking them up to see these people speaking about their work and to see examples. That’s been an absolute joy. I wondered if it would be nice with each case study, if it would be possible, to have a short interviewy bit with the person who’d written it, just to find out what drives them.”
Beckie: “I think I love this book. And really I love the process of doing this together as well. I feel like I’ve got so much out of the different bits we’ve all chosen and the different ways we’ve gone into it and interpreted it. I would like a map for this book. I think I find it a bit overwhelming, that it is so big and so full of text and I don’t know where to start. And when you’ve pulled back the layers, it’s so deep and it’s so rich and there are so many gems in there — but I don’t see it when I flick through. And I have a tendency to read books backwards, so sometimes I want pictures and I want a map, something to just grab me a little bit and pull me into a page. There’s so many amazing ideas in here and I’m excited to read more of them, and I’m just thinking about the best way to dip into it for me, as well.”
Genevieve: “A book like this usually takes me years to read. I am a slow reader. Doing it all together has really brought it alive and I really love the process. This would be perfect as a ‘book club’ book. Trying out the different workshop sessions on each other — that could be another way that other audiences could connect with it. It is a lot, but it feels like something I want to keep going back to.”
Claire: “I am a visual learner so the fact there are so few pictures. … Something to help guide you through, because it is so huge… I do think the accessibility of it for people who are dyslexic or neurodiverse or come at things from a different perspective and maybe aren’t able to sit and read loads and loads of text, that could be a barrier that I do think we need to acknowledge. So, some keys or some guides or maps.”
Nicky: “They do have the themes that they’ve pulled out, but don’t give you the ability to look through by themes. On an online book you could do that: you could use them as tags and look back. You could colour code those. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the cover is so colourful and the book is so uncolourful?”
Beckie: “It’s not a comment on the quality of the book, because there’s so much in it: it’s like an addition.”
All four saw the book as a starting point, a help when thinking through future activities, but also a great support in terms of offering contexts for their practices and evidence of the great heritage that the work of ecoartists offers internationally — as well as a stimulus for rich conversations such as these in the shared review process. In a sense perhaps, the book acts as one of its own provocations: a collaborative practice that has brought together a mix of approaches in theories and examples that offer valuable insight and stimulus.
As Nicky observes: “Art is part of our shared culture and at all levels it contributes to the ongoing conversation by reaching parts that other methods just don’t permeate. We believe because we feel, and art helps us to communicate and sense emotions. Ecoart is providing a vital bridge between us and the rest of nature. We seem unable to stop our destructive behaviour through factual knowledge alone; we need to feel it in our bones.”
Completing this phase of what promises to be an ongoing conversation between them, our four artist-reviewers came up with a provocation of their own to share. Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky hope that you will find in this a way to recognise, reflect and move on with experiences of ecological loss in your own neighbourhood and the grief this entails.
Make space to notice and connect with ecological loss. Where is this happening in your local patch? In gardens, public spaces, high streets or developed land, for example.
Create a simple ritual to honour the moment — such as a sipping on a foraged tea, creating a ‘gathered material’ mandala, walking barefoot or scattering (native, environment-appropriate) seeds. The ‘right’ ritual will emerge as you spend time in the space of loss. Remember to take good care — of yourself, of others, of the place you are in — as you embark on this discovery.
And, when your ritual encounter with this loss has settled in the moment, look also for something that offers you hope. Something nearby, on the ground or water, among plants or trees, or in the sky. Whether ‘human’ or ‘natural’, mark this sign of ecological hope amidst grief.
Sapphic and neuroqueer artist Indigo Sapphire Moon shares her experience of nature as a source of creative whispers, which blossom into ideas like her new poetry collection, and a space for us to exist outside our human story.
1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
The butterfly birthed from a pearl in the root of a sapphire tree. This tree blossomed small crystallised buds of sapphire and released fragrant bursts of amber musk and sandalwood. From there, those within close proximity of the sapphire tree grew still, patient and content. For the tree’s power lay within the butterfly’s own heart.
Nature feeds creativity
Nature doesn’t have a narrative. She is a reminder. Of our own power. When I embark upon nature’s pathways, I also have no narrative. No age, no gender, no sexuality, no race, no ethnicity, no history, no career, no education, no… National Insurance Number.
I simply am.
I can just be.
There lies our power.
Within this power, lies a bud of creativity that slowly transforms into blossoms of ideas. That’s how I feel when nature embraces me. There’s space to breathe. There’s contentment in the stillness of the water. There’s peace in witnessing the interactions between wildlife. In between these moments of tranquillity, I recognise the truth of my artistry. My creative voice speaks to me as it rides on a gust of wind and ripples of water.
The emptiness of quiet, paradoxically, gives birth to creative whispers which can grow louder if I hear an idea that piques my interest. These whispers come from my subconscious and this is opened up by nature. The encompassing presence of nature reveals sparks of ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced if I hadn’t been willing to listen.
Whatever our creative practice, nature has a limitless bounty of inspiration. From colours and shapes to textures and sounds, being in the presence of nature is undoubtedly one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had. When I return to the four walls of my bedroom, my mind feels lighter, refreshed and content.
I listen, tentatively, to those creative whispers. Then they become sparks.
Connected: a wild wellness
This in turn, impacts my mental, physical and spiritual wellness. The term ‘wellness’ means different things to each individual. Something I find promotes wellness within myself, such as meditation and nature walking, may not work for someone else.
And that’s wonderful.
It’s important we listen to our true selves and discover what promotes wellness on an individual level.
As I mentioned earlier, nature has no narrative. She opens up space for us to exist outside of our human story, to exist outside of our bodies. Our stories are a gift from the universe. A chance to exist and experience ourselves as spiritual beings without the human perspective. This allows me to tap into other perspectives of nature and connect with other spirits that share the Earth with us. Paradoxically, existing outside of my human body makes me feel more grounded than I ever have been. The path is clear and my roots are solid on the Earth. I’m no longer tethered to human thought or mind, which can sometimes feel like a damnation for me, personally.
On a spiritual level, in those moments of calm and contentment, listening to birdsong or the gentle motion of water, I am reminded of my consciousness. The vibrational energy that lives at the heart of my spirit, and in the spirit of every living entity. We are connected.
I listen to the space in-between my breath.
The hum of the universe.
When I reflect upon this realisation, of my being, I feel grounded, inspired, joyful and peaceful. My body responds. Every muscle is relaxed, my skin is warm in some areas, cold in others, and I breathe deeper.
Nature’s power aligns my mind, body and spirit. I feel well. Even if it only lasts for a few minutes, or a few hours. The feeling of wellness is divine. And for me, nature breathes that divinity, in and out, in silent hums.
From creative whispers to mindful self-publication
When I listened to those silent hums, I realised something.
Why wait for someone else to recognise my voice? My power?
I recognise it. That’s enough.
I had written a poetry collection and decided I was going to self-publish. I thought it would be harder than it was. But life is full of surprises. I found this accessible, easy to navigate, printing service (and I can’t remember the name of it, super helpful, I know). I uploaded my collection onto the website and they cleverly organised it into a printable book. They offered various options on sizes and binding. Once that was decided, they calculated the price based on how many copies I wanted. Again, I was surprised at how affordable it was. I paid less than thirty pounds for ten copies.
The only thing now was to find somewhere to sell them.
Luckily, I work for an amazing charity, Ideas Hub, which hosts a creative community space for artists to sell their work. They believed in me and my creative practice. And gave me a space on their bookshelf.
I know not everyone has the opportunity to find an organisation that allows artists to sell their work, especially if that work is self-published. However, don’t be discouraged. There are many digital platforms where you can self-publish your work. Research is key. Believe in your creative voice and recognise your unique spirit.
You deserve to be heard.
To be seen.
Embrace your creative power.
Let the world see you glow and shimmer, like a butterfly from a sapphire tree.
The butterfly danced under the moonlit sky and left trails of shimmering sapphire dust in the air, churned into delicate shapes and patterns from the beat of her wings. She felt her own power now; unique and deep. The butterfly thanked the sapphire tree and flew higher and higher, into the heart of the moon.
Find out more
Asters in Virgo, Indigo’s new poetry collection, explores themes of the environment, nature, well-being and queer identity. It’s only available as a physical book, and if you would like to purchase a copy, please email Indigo at indigomoon229[at]gmail.com
You can find examples of creative whispers at work in more of Indigo’s poetry in her post Only Star (some of the poems there also appeared in the creative responses to our Environmental Keywords series). And in I Am Purpose, Indigo shares a short story reflecting on the presence of signals from within, evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis.