Un-tending the World — A Geopoetics of the Wild

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White finds in James Roberts’s ‘Two Lights’ a profound, close observation of the living world: a wise blending between writer and subject that encapsulates the essence of geopoetics as the sensitive expression of reality.

1,780 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes

“There is a skill in un-tending to our spaces, in patiently leaving them to their own remaking. It’s a skill that is vital now, when the damage we’ve done to earth has become so urgently in need of reversal. Some of the best examples we have are found in old churchyards. We can enter and quietly watch the slow unfurling of the space. Perhaps we can rediscover our sense of the sacred.”

James Roberts’s work has been on my radar since I received and reviewed a copy of his astounding Winged four years ago, as the UK and much of the world remained in lockdown during the Covid pandemic. My gut feeling then was that this book
marked the emergence of an artist whose observation and awareness of the creatures of this earth are precise, startling, and vital. And needed, urgently.
I wrote then that he is ultimately a realist interlocutor, and now I’m convinced.

“In this twilight space that echoes with the sound of the falls there is an elsewhere that is almost touchable. Children, every one a little animist, are born with a sense of mystery in nature, though we educate it out of them. It returns at times, in places like this. “

Here, in his new work, it is James’s words and narrative that lead, with a carefully curated collection of images that stand alongside — supporting, not dominating. And his words track difficult and often unimaginable terrain: his wife’s illness, his depression, and the various ecological crises we are foisting upon our world that are accumulating into a bigger disaster of ecosystem collapses that we cannot understand.

Geopoetics in ink: Showing a Swift from the book 'Two Lights' by James Roberts
Swift from the book ‘Two Lights’ by James Roberts

Geopoetics — seeking a renewed sense of world

All of this has sent James out to walk, wander, explore and observe: bigger journeys in earlier days, across Africa and the Algerian desert, and then more recently closer to home, along rivers and streams meandering through Wales and the Welsh/Herefordshire Marches, woods, fields and edgeland strips and crevices.

“I’m doing my best to imagine a species of bird on a planet like ours, but utterly different, thousands of light years away. I imagine this planet spins on a more oblique axis to its sun so that twilight in its northerly and southerly regions lasts for days. Here evolution has favoured creatures which can create their own light. Its oceans glow, lit by clouds of algae. In its strange forests trees have evolved needles which shine like Christmas decorations. And in its skies are great birds blocking out the pointillist patterns of the surrounding galaxies. The birds have long necks and wide wings. They are covered with phosphorescent feathers, standing out against the sky, like luminous swans or comets.”

This is from the opening chapter, ‘Chasing the Dawn’, tracking the start and spread of each dawn across the world, and demonstrates a deftness, an acuteness, and a sense of an observer-participant in this universe, that really fizzles. It sets this book up beautifully.

He leads us across different terrains and habitats, describing how different species of birds interact with and are moved or motivated by the sun’s rising, and then brings us back to ‘home’ with him, with a placing and drawing of his own terrain, and then an overview of how he came to be there.

The chapter delves into a description of his connection to bird life, birding, or bird knowledges — this is such a wise blending between writer and subject. It is as though we are being gently told or forewarned that from here on in, the writer becomes bird, and will be shamanicly moving between these worlds throughout the book.

Showing 'Watching for Swans' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Watching for Swans’ from Two Lights. Image by James Roberts © 2023

The words flow as black marks making narratives on the page, and then as we turn some pages we find a resonant wash of a bird flying across the whiteness. A swan champions upwards, neck and wings extended (I searched for the right descriptive word there, and championing feels like the very best at my disposal right now), within or against a black/grey gloom or miasma, passing across and over.

I’m influenced by the Scottish poet/philosopher Kenneth White, who advocated an approach to life known as geopoetics, defined by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics as “seeking a renewed sense of world, a sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics, expressing reality in different ways, through de-conditioning and using all our senses”. This work — I’m unable to call it simply ‘a book’ — encapsulates all of that, glued together with feathers held and dropped by all the avian community flying past James’s close-observing eye.

Swans abound minutes from my house close to a bend in the River Cam, and I too stop and watch and wonder as they glide and move, inhabiting and dominating watery space. There’s a bird interplay, along this hallowed river space, between swans, ducks, and a heron (I assume it’s a single solitary heron, with a defined hunting ground, though there is a ‘heron tree’ a mile or so further down, which is known to house a dozen or so at various times). And of course there’s at times a very active human layer, University and town teams rowing along at speed, their coaches on cycles bellowing from the towpath. Then there’s the below-the-water-line interplay, although with three sewage inputs within a couple of hundred metres any aquatic life is seriously threatened. And yet, the swans live here! They arch, and breed, and feed. Life.

“It’s our fate on this ocean-facing island, if our direction of travel as a culture continues, to face the rising waters, the ever-more-frequently-boiling rivers. We may continue to poison them, to carve, block, and silt them up for a time yet, believing as we do that they are simply our resources to be harnessed. But they will outlast us and their waters will run clean, eventually. There will come a time when this stretch of river will flow wilder than it does now.”

Creation in the ruins

In another striking sequence, within the chapter titled ‘The Church and the Island’, James writes about visits to ancient churches, creates pictures, discusses religious practices, especially asceticism — fascinating histories of hermits Evagrius and Cynog — and even hearing an ethereal voice testing the acoustics in one building.  He then returns us to the ruins, to the wild, and the becoming that transcends facilitated worship towards an other-worldly deity.

Other snapshots he brings us include tragic moments of hatred invested upon the natural world by some of us. Shooting at swans, tearing apart foxes, throwing an owl’s already dead body onto a road to be crushed by vehicles, and the ugly reality of compulsive photography — of everything! — rather than seeing, observing, sensing, listening, and being with.

Two Lights is writings and images in the ruins. The desolation of despoliation, and not knowing the catastrophe that humans are catapulting ourselves towards. And yet, through close witness, and perhaps the collapse of our ego clutching to all we think we know, the avian world is just there — here, right alongside us. Whether or not they might save us is immaterial. Their equal existence is what’s important, and how we may come to notice that through the witnessing experiences, reflections, and decline of our own mortal lives. He really is writing and creating work about passageways through time and air, led by avian species that live their lives in focussed flights of movement, within landscapes of loss and life.

“Across the continent many species are on fire, crops withering in the prolonged drought and vulnerable people dying. Every single community on Earth, human or wild, has now encountered losses caused by the depletion of nature and by global warming. Unless we find a way to heal the damage we’ve done the losses will accelerate. It will take a huge shift in our psyches to achieve this. Every country, city and village, every community and family needs to ask the question: who speaks for wolf, for bear, for fox, for gull, for heron, for kingfisher – for all species, not just our own?”

'Wolf' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Wolf’ from ‘Two Lights’. Image by James Roberts © 2023

Find more

Geopoetics as untending the world: Showing the cover of 'Two Lights' by James Roberts, published in 2023.Two Lights – walking through landscapes of loss and life by writer and artist James Roberts is published by September Publishing (2023).

You can read a sample chapter at the link above — and explore much more at Night River Wood, James Roberts’s website and his Instagram.

In our Quarantine Connections series, you can read A River of Sound, a piece that James Roberts contributed during Week 8 of our communal sharing of creative content and reflections during the UK’s first Covid lockdowns of 2020. James said 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.”

James Murray-White mentions The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, a network developing an understanding of geopoetics as the creative expression of the Earth. “It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’ in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” You canalos explore the International Institute of Geopoetics.

All the Little Gods Surrounding Us, his review of James Roberts’s earlier Winged is one of 14 posts that James Murray-White has written for us. ClimateCultures was seven years old this March! James was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

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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