Between Monday 1st and Friday 5th June 2020 — Week 7 of our Quarantine Connection — we’re posting contributions from our members each day. You can find the full, week-by-week listing at Quarantine Connection.
Day 40 — Dave Pritchard: “We Assert!” (Preface: No Ordinary Manifesto)
Dave Pritchard is an independent advisor with special interest in intersections between culture and environment, coordinating the Convention on Wetlands’ Culture Network and chairing CIWEM’s Arts & Environment Network. He is based in Northumberland, England.
Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, says: “When Dave offered the AEN’s “We Assert!” in response to the Quarantine Connection invitation, I knew his preface to it would be a fitting way to conclude the series and to continue our conversations: marking our ongoing journey into unprecedented times with what Dave himself dubs ‘a manifesto for uncertainty’. The preface and manifesto offer — from a perspective eight years ago now, and as relevant as ever — one important way into exploring our way ahead.”
Dave says of this piece:
“The text below is a copy of the Preface that introduced “We Assert!”, the Manifesto of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management’s Arts and Environment Network (CIWEM AEN), published in 2012. With twelve different sections by fourteen contributors, some poetic, some analytic, all impelled by a forceful commitment, this was not your everyday manifesto.
“The AEN was born from a perception about the benefits of rather radical collaborations between different artistic and environmental disciplines (and world views) in the contexts of policy, institutions, practices and research. This then quickly applied itself to the growing urgency of climate and ecological crises. It is illuminating to re-encounter this in the light (or shadow) of today’s new extra existential uncertainty (all these socio-ecological upheavals being related to each other too, of course).
“COVID-19 has produced a strange mix of benefits and disbenefits, both for the environment and for art. As everyone starts working, shopping and socialising on-line, the notion of what ‘networking’ entails (for the AEN or any other network) also now has new variations. And anyone who campaigns to conserve and recognise the inherent rights of “all biodiversity” (hmm, okay, maybe not certain viruses…) is reminded that environmentalism is ultimately a cultural question, and one of subjective moral judgements – not a matter of purely scientific absolutes. The skills for navigating ahead intelligently on this are found among our artists, often more than among our technocrats. CIWEM, to its immense credit, recognised this many years ago.
“Perhaps it is fitting therefore to end this Quarantine Connection series with a beginning, and a newly re-purposed ‘preface’ to whatever comes next.”
“We Assert!” (Preface: No ordinary manifesto)
This is no ordinary manifesto. For a start, its provenance might raise an eyebrow or two. Why would a long-established leading professional standards body such as CIWEM, with a royal charter to boot, launch a cry from the rooftops in this way?
As the only such body with an integrated approach to environmental, social and cultural issues, CIWEM in 2007 created an Arts & Environment Network (AEN), to foster new levels of resourcefulness by linking skills, insights and approaches across different disciplines, including the arts. The basic vision was to see “more creativity at the heart of environmental policy and action”.
Creative and aesthetic responses to the environment often reveal deeper truths of form, function, and universal interconnectedness. This takes us beyond mere knowledge of facts, to new understandings of the forces, connections and constraints that operate, giving a fuller appreciation of whether we are working with the grain of the realities of nature or not; and whether we are in tune with its limits to tolerance of change or not. Or in other words, environmental sustainability.
Policymaking for sustainability partly concerns the mechanics of the self-renewing capacity of natural systems; but it also involves a choice of societal attitudes to things like levels of risk and urgency, tradeoffs, the moral obligation we owe to future generations, the spatial scale on which we perceive our place in the world, beliefs about matters beyond personal experience, and perceptions of shared values. Practical management strategies depend as much on this cultural context as they do on water chemistry or population dynamics.
In fact a whole range of intangible, non-measurable, non-linear, unpredictable and process-centred factors play a part in public decision-making; but our ever more technocratic, dollar- and data-driven systems tend not to acknowledge this, and we generally have underdeveloped language for talking about it. Often the deepest truths are expressible only by poetry or metaphor, or by the Court Fool who alone can “tell it like it is”.
As observed later in these pages however, creativity is not some special preserve of “artists”, whoever we think they might be. This manifesto comes not from a club of specialists, but from a porous crucible (the AEN) within which CIWEM is catalysing the conditions for the kind of “re-framings” we need as a society if we are to break beyond existing self-destructive patterns.
Recent years have seen a mushrooming of initiatives, degree courses, research programmes, practising individuals and organisations focusing on the interface between art & environment or art & ecology. Most of these have emerged from an arts-based starting-point: far fewer have been sparked within the mainstream environmental sphere itself; so here CIWEM is a pre-eminent and much-needed exception.
Many of the AEN’s activities (networking, research projects, awards, exhibitions, case studies, workshops, technical advice, policy development, outreach and much besides) can be viewed via the CIWEM website. A formal Policy Position Statement was published in 2009, and is reproduced at the end of the present document.
So why add a “manifesto”? In picturing what that word tends to represent these days, we perhaps forget the exuberant variety of forms and roles it has taken in the past. CIWEM re-conjures that broader notion here, and offers a far from ordinary alchemical mix of essays, messages, questions, thought-bites, word-music, challenges and urgent ideas. Something new coalesces at the heart of this: but each reader is likely to see it in a different place.
The mainstream environment sector needs more voices like these to challenge perceptions, awaken sensibilities and embrace in a more serious way the dimensions of inspiration, motivation, deeper cultural questioning, creativity, and imagination. This is not about “using art” merely as a medium to “communicate” about something else. It is about adopting a more artful approach that connects us in a different way with the world we are in, and fans the sparks of that greater creativity we need as a society for the challenges we face.
The one thing we can’t do is be passive. This is no ordinary manifesto; but these are no ordinary times.
The full text of the CIWEM AEN Manifesto can be read here, there is more about the CIWEM’s Arts & Environment Network at their site, and you can find out more about Dave’s work at his ClimateCultures profile.
Day 39 — James Roberts: River of Sound
James Roberts is a poet, essayist and artist, and founder and art director of Zoomorphic, a creative hub celebrating and defending wildlife and the more than human world. He is based in Clyro, Wales.
James says of this piece:
“I wrote this piece a year ago as a response to an increasing awareness of my own gradual loss and also the almost unnoticeable fading of natural sounds from the landscape. A year later there is a noticeable increase of birds in the landscape, and particularly in the surrounding uplands where the curlews are calling more than I’ve ever heard before. I’m not sure if this equates to me being hopeful for the future of declining species, but it shows how very easy it would be for us to give the wild the space it needs to thrive.”
A River of Sound
Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It’s as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a stone as close to the surface as I could. The little red indicator flashed and the bars representing the left and right stereo channels pulsed. Sound recorders are difficult to use. They pick up and amplify even the slightest vibration, so you have to stand rock-still while you’re recording, which is hard when you’re knee deep in freezing water. I held on for a minute, then tried again further out in the stream. This time two goosanders flew over my head and I captured the woosh-beat of their wings. I managed another two recordings before the industrial world interrupted, first a tractor, then a chainsaw, and finally the droning tinnitus of an overhead jet.
I’m recording these sounds in order to build an archive I can access in a decade or so. I’ve been getting slowly but progressively hard of hearing for several years now. At first I missed the occasional word when someone was speaking to me. Now I cannot follow conversations in a room with people talking or music playing in the background. Oncoming deafness is not how I imagined it. The world doesn’t seem to be getting quieter, it is simply narrowing. High pitched notes, the steeples in a soundscape, have disappeared. I don’t hear our alarm go off in the mornings, which can be handy, but I also can’t hear buzzards calling. Lower registers have smudged together and lost their edges. At the same time internal sounds, my heartbeat, the creaking of my jaw, and the thud of my footsteps, have become amplified. It’s like being submerged in water. The world sometimes feels noisier than before. But increasing noise is the hallmark of these times. Though the natural world is being silenced there will never be a silent spring.
I’m hoping that, when my hearing worsens, I’ll be able to play sound recordings on headphones with the volume turned up and still hear the things I love to listen to, the voices of fast flowing rivers, owl calls and the wing-beats of goosanders.
On an island south of Thailand a young tourist was riding an elephant on the beach when the normally obedient creature turned and ran. The elephant’s caretaker managed to catch up and lead it back to the beach, but within minutes it fled again, the tourist still onboard. Once more the caretaker steered the elephant back to the beach only for it to turn and run. This situation continued, the caretaker and the tourist becoming more exasperated until other people noticed a dark line rapidly swelling out to sea. This time elephant, rider and caretaker fled and did not return. Minutes later the tidal wave hit, engulfing everything in its path and drowning hundreds of people. The tsunami had been caused by an underwater earthquake many miles offshore. After the event, people noticed that animals, wild and domestic, had made their way to higher ground in the minutes before the wave hit. No carcasses were found. The animals had heard the infrasound made by the earthquake, a sound below the 20hz range of human hearing.
A horse can hear through its feet and its jaw, feeling low frequency vibrations passing through the ground. A horse’s ear is conical like the end of a trumpet and can be rotated independently through 180 degrees. You know when a horse is paying attention to you because at least one ear will be pointing in your direction. When both ears are facing forward, the horse is doing its own thing. Once, when out riding on a quiet lane, my horse reared and span. I managed to quiet her down and we went a little further before she span again. I decided not to fight her. We turned for home where I let her out into the field. She took off as soon as I closed the gate and joined the rest of the herd galloping and bucking like mad things. Across the valley a flash of lightning lit up the mountains. In half-an-hour one of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced hit. The horses continued to spook until every one of them was coated white with a mixture of sweat and rain.
The highly tuned senses of some animals makes them appear to be able to see into the future. But in reality all creatures only experience the past. Humans, being less sensitive, live a little further into the past. Our ears and eyes, and the tips of our fingers need to relay what they are sensing along pathways to the brain. It then takes the cortex a fraction of a second to process these sensations and to formulate the mental picture of the information sent. By the time we comprehend what we’re experiencing, the experience has already gone. We’ll never see our loved ones as they actually are, but only as they have just been. We’re all standing in rivers, looking downstream.
In the final stage of dying breathing becomes laboured. A rattle starts at the back of the throat. When it was in my father’s throat a nurse gave him an injection. She told me it was to make his breathing easier. This did not happen. It got quieter, but more rapid, more laboured. It was like watching a terrible film sequence with the volume turned down. Perhaps most families don’t want to hear that sound. I wish that my father could have been spared the jab of a needle as one of his last experiences of life and that he didn’t have to listen to a nurse talking about him as if he was just an irreparable machine. I’d have liked to have taken him to be beside my river so he could listen to the past and future spoken by water. But perhaps in those last minutes he was tuned into something else entirely, something far off that I’ll only hear when I reach the edge of my life.
Our hearing, like our sight, flits from one focal point to the next. But the ear doesn’t function like the eye. Hearing does not blur. It takes a deliberate act of inattention to tune out your surroundings. When I was at primary school the teachers always moved me to the front row of the class because of my deafness, but I could hear as well as anyone back then. I just wasn’t interested in what they were teaching me. It felt like there was something outside the classroom walls that I was missing, something important but invisible, happening beyond the housing estate, the railway line and the pit stacks. There was a line of trees on the horizon and I knew that whatever I was sensing was going on somewhere in there. My parents weren’t interested in woods and wild places, they liked parks, shopping streets, seaside promenades. The first decade and a half of my life was wholly spent within earshot of passing cars and human voices. But we lived across the road from an old Victorian priory with a couple of acres of ground which had become overgrown since the owners had fallen on hard times. A tawny owl took up residence in there and some nights it perched on the faulty street-lamp outside my bedroom window. Its call woke me up and filled me with a desire to be near to wildness that has never left me.
Soundscapes surround us that we are oblivious to. Elephants converse on dry evenings over a 300km distance. Oceans teem with the calls of cetaceans thrown half way around the world, but we need to use machines to hear them. We listen to the calls of bats with radio detectors, we use apps to recognise the songs of finches. Most of the time the sounds we hear are coming out of our own heads. I can walk miles without hearing anything apart from the argument I’ve concocted with myself. At other times an ear-worm will follow me for days. It’s so easy to tune out. The last pair of curlews on my hill are usually around this time of year, but they’re always far off and their calls are easily missed, so I have to stop, scan the landscape and concentrate hard. It’s like trying to find a faint radio signal amongst the electrostatic crackle and hiss of the world, turning the dial as slowly as I can. I’m listening to the world harder these days, and I’m building a sound archive as a back-up. One day its index will read: river in spate, wind in Scots pines, galloping wild ponies, high waterfalls, flock of golden plovers, honey bees on heather, otters at the stream, distant curlews.
Day 38 — Robynne Limoges: Lacing the Land
Robynne Limoges is an artist who uses photography in a search for illumination, playing out the metaphysical question of just how little light is required to dispel darkness. She is based in London, England.
Robynne says of this piece:
“Sometimes I can see what nature is telling me, sometimes I turn away from instruction; I take up the stance of a resistant, recalcitrant student. But nature is patient. And in times of great grief, I return to her, penitent, desperate for her comfort, for a path I might follow to think things through. This series was taken within an area of less than a few hundred square meters in an historic woodland. In three decades it has lost many of its treasures: over a thousand mature trees destroyed by storms of wild ferocity. By the time I found these images, in 2018, the earth had begun to forgive itself. Left to its own devices, uncleared, it began the process of lacing itself back together with new growth, and the fallen and the dead became part of a new kind of living. This small group of images is my tribute to that undeniable process.
“The beginning of the Corona virus lockdown coincided with a personal loss. The imposed quarantine was, therefore, no additional torment for me. I walked at night, when the streets were emptiest and I have posted a few images from those visits. As anxiety increases, the ability to quieten down and see what is being told diminishes. Almost all of the images taken during this time of quarantine have been destroyed. But I hope to rebuild my ‘sightline’ just as nature does. Like all of us, I will lace my life back together, nourish the small, messy tendrils into a different pattern, learn how to wear it as my own.”
Lacing the Land
Day 37 — Jaime Robles: Fire on Silk
Jaime Robles is a writer and visual artist who has created several environmental poetry installations and collaborated on a dance–poem juxtaposing the natural world and the city in movement. She is based in San Francisco, USA.
Jaime says of this piece:
“This is a work-in-progress. A poem on a silk hanging, which refers to the catastrophic fires that are the result of climate change. I wrote the poem, dyed the silk and am now laying out the type and figuring out how to transfer it to the silk, for the hanging. The silk will be hung from burnt branches ‘repaired’ by using a technique similar to kintsugi ceramic repair.”
Fire on Silk