Researcher Chris Fremantle reviews The Raven’s Nest. This ecological memoir by Sarah Thomas addresses love and loss and coming to belong in the Westfjords peninsular of Iceland, evoking human and more-than-human relationships to draw out stories of interdependence.
1,860 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes
In The Raven’s Nest Sarah Thomas tells us a story of falling in love, moving to another culture and learning its ways. Many things have agency in the book, including all sorts of other living things as well as landscapes and even buildings. Daylight too is an actor. Nested within the book is a photo essay, a visual journey parallel to and intersecting with the words.
The raven’s nest — an improvisation
The raven’s nest itself, which provides the title, is found in a first-floor natural history museum above shops in Bolungarvík, a fishing village on the Westfjords peninsula in the very west of Iceland: it is an icon for a process of assemblage.
A cluster of sticks in a cubic glass case catches my eye. It is both chaotic and coherent. I stroll over and look at it from above – a circular nest perhaps a metre in diameter. The perimeter, which makes up most of it, is a rough entanglement of twigs, driftwood, mussel shells, a strip of yellowing plastic container, a sheep’s shoulder blade, a wooden knife handle, a TV aerial, and the rusted head of a rake with four missing tines. It is perfect for its purpose – a hotchpotch of plant, human-made and animal detritus holding it together, weighing it down against the high winds. There are no big trees here for a large bird to nest in: the nest must be resilient alone on a cliff. Its centre is a small, intimate hemisphere – less than a third of the whole: a bed of intricately woven fine grasses and frayed blue plastic rope threads, lined with down. Inside this centre lie four small eggs, almost lost in the flotsam. The label reads: Raven’s Nest. The nest is ‘safe’ now, sealed in this moment against the high winds. It is safe, though these eggs will never hatch. How might it live again, contain life, out in the unknowable wilds of the future?
We know from the outset that a failing relationship is central, but we don’t know why. Much of the book is concerned with the process of becoming an inhabitant, someone who understands the habitat and is part of it. This process is episodic in life: understanding comes in moments and in our reflections on moments. This opens up the meaning of improvisation — making do with the materials at hand — both literally and as a practice.
This is beautifully captured in an exchange between the author and her partner:
In the distance, Hekla stands crisp and clear as a cardboard cut-out, the colour of a bruise. She is majestic.
‘So, we’ll be living beneath a volcano that is overdue to erupt?’
‘We can make sure the van’s always got enough petrol for an escape.’
Problem. Solution. Why is life in England so complicated? So full of prohibitions and protocols which do not allow for the cultivation of sense…
That the relationship between freedom and constraint is fundamental to improvisation is beautifully articulated, though the lurking challenge of coping with this becomes clearer as the book goes on. Whilst the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 does feature, it is everyday human and more-than-human ‘making do’ which is the central issue. Human improvisation is in the moment, but it can have longer-term ramifications.
Dependence and interdependence
Behind this book is a PhD, another text, which discusses what it means to be writing in the Anthropocene and unpacks a critical literature on writing. In the PhD Sarah quotes Donna Haraway (who in turn is referencing Marilyn Strathern): “It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”
Stories create worlds. Stories are nested in stories. Icelanders live in a story — by way of an aside to illuminate this, the artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison say, “Every place is the story of its own becoming.”
Sarah Thomas’ story of becoming Icelandic is a story within stories of places becoming. Many relationships between humans and other living things are evoked in The Raven’s Nest. The narrative focuses on and draws out dependencies. Some are the result of human carelessness in the past. Some are ongoing and continuous since humans settled on Iceland. The former is exemplified by the experience of providing a temporary fish shop on the edge of a lake for the short summer season. Humans introduced Arctic Char into the lakes. The people who facilitate Sarah getting enmeshed in Iceland run the temporary fish shop. Walkers on holiday gravitate to the fish shop for fresh Arctic Char. The abundance of the invasive species is mitigated by the human visitors enjoying eating freshly caught fish. A new set of dependencies is invented.
Another ongoing dependency relates to sheep. The family Sarah becomes part of farms sheep, amongst other things. The sense is they have ‘always’ farmed sheep. Another, long-term, dependency is articulated in the annual slaughter, hanging the carcasses, the smoking of meat, the long winters.
But even the position of Iceland on the planet makes for dependencies:
My experience of the light’s absence has been less intense, but more protracted, than the total darkness I anticipated. I wish I had it in me to keep a record of the times of sunrise and sunset; there is poetry in such accuracy. But this being my life, I feel it as a whole reality, not a set of data to be recorded and analysed.
Interdependence has become a focus of the environmental humanities, but it is also critical to understand dependence. Isabelle Stengers articulates the relationship between the two, saying in her essay for the Critical Zones exhibition catalogue: “Nor should the intertwining interdependencies be confused with a network of interlinking dependencies. It is easy to understand why, without water or light, a plant dies. This fits the definition of ‘dependence’. But interdependence implies a way of being sensitive that is a form of venture.”
The Raven’s Nest sensitises us to difference and the process of becoming, moving in and out of difference. Her attention to difference, her own patterns and expectations, and the patterns and assumptions characteristic of Iceland, generates new sensitivities.
The stories we need now
It is a book about love, loss and also mental health. The PhD dissertation is its twin. Being asked to review The Raven’s Nest and being a practice-led researcher led me inevitably to reading sections of Sarah’s practice-based PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies. The latter talks about the Anthropocene in ways that are a current riff in the environmental humanities. She cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement because he asks the important question: do the arts need to question themselves in the extinction crisis? Yes, the arts are vital to the change of consciousness required, but the arts are part of the consciousness that produced the Anthropocene. Later she takes up Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction to deepen the point, questioning not only the form of the modern novel and its focus on everyday subjectivities, but to go further and question all stories with heroes. The question is, what might be the arts that we need now?
Reading her PhD enables me to understand the judgements she is making, the sensitivities she is alert to, in relation to the process of writing. It represents another layer of sensitizing. However, the PhD is not a substitute for The Raven’s Nest — reflections on the process of making stories is not a substitute for stories. The artwork is the artwork. The sensitivities and complexities evoked affect us. Early on Sarah talks about one of the key differences manifest in language:
I enjoy that these nouns I live alongside have a gender, even when Icelanders are speaking English. ‘It’ is easier to commodify, but ‘he’ and ‘she’ become beings I must acknowledge a relationship with.
Find out more
Chris Fremantle is a researcher and lecturer at Gray’s School of Art. He established ecoartscotland in 2010 as a platform for research and practice, a node in the network of ecoarts. He writes, mostly in collaboration: most recently, Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities (New Village Press, 2022).
Sarah Thomas is a writer and documentary maker with a background in anthropology. See more at her website. Here on ClimateCultures, you can read her post with fellow member Jon Randall, Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope — where they share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring an abandoned road in Iceland, accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.
The Raven’s Nest (2022) is published in hardback and ebook by Atlantic Books and is available as an audiobook from Audible. Robert Macfarlane has described it as “A deeply thoughtful, vivid, enquiring, genre-traversing book, closely attentive to the people and the landscapes with which it dwells. It asks hard questions – and offers no easy answers – about what it means to belong to a place, and to live well upon a part of the earth. Sarah’s writing – crisp in its details, patient in its rhythms – draws its readers northwards and inwards upon a fascinating journey.”
Sarah was interviewed for Iceland Monitor on the book’s publication, and the piece – Hnífsdalur made her an author – includes interesting insights into her approach to the book: “I was trained in making movies in the way that the filmmaker is invisible, like a fly on a wall. But when trying to convey the experience of being a foreigner trying to adjust to a different culture, it somehow doesn’t make sense to pretend to be invisible. … Writing the book was a new way to re-take the movie. When writing you can position the camera elsewhere, or go back in time and reminisce. So I feel like I have made a movie with words.”
Chris mentions Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction — a work that features in other ClimateCultures posts, including Philip Webb Gregg‘s A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, On a Writer’s Imaginarium by Sarah Hymas, and Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place by Iain Biggs. Iain has also discussed Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in his post Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’.
“It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories,” is from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).
Artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s suggestion that “Every place is the story of its own becoming” is a central metaphor in their ‘Future Gardens’ work, as explored in this Artist Statement.
The quote from Isabelle Stengers on interdependencies comes from Critical Zones: the Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT University Press, 2020).