Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares reflections on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as reaching towards the more-than-human.


1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing.

Showing Green Frog on ditch bottom.
Green Frog on ditch bottom
Photograph: Brit Griffin © 2022

I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere1. It is surely a place of hard takings.

So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.

On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead2.

Permeability: Showing Frog coated with water mold, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog coated with water mold.
Photograph: Brit Griffin ©2022

The permeability of the frog

But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.

A frog’s skin is composed of a thin, membranous tissue that can bring oxygen directly into its blood vessels. The porous membrane can also act as a sponge, soaking up scarce water from pond bottom or even dew. Such a fine line, then, between the outside and the inside of the frog. What seems like a hard and defined distinction, inside/outside, is suddenly in jeopardy, even in flux, what with those gases diffusing in and spreading out. Nothing to stop them. That is the strand I want to follow.

Permeability is a brilliant adaption that is key to frog survival. But when you factor in homo extractus, well, it’s a whole other ballgame.

For their magic skin to work, it needs to stay wet. Right there, a red flag. Hotter summers, drought — climate change won’t be too kind to frogs. But it gets worse. A warming climate not only stresses creatures but seems to increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants.

In my region, agriculture and forestry now dominate the landscape. Both are promiscuous with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that are delivered mostly through aerial spraying during the late summer. The toxicity of glyphosate is made worse by the surfactant (POEA) that is added to the mix to make the herbicide stick to, and penetrate, the plants more effectively. I guess it is not surprising that something called polyoxyethylene tallow amine does damage to frogs — it increases the permeability of their skin3, letting in more poison.

I think of frog: that wet membrane, the coolness of the shade, tucked in under a leafy overhang. Then what? The scorching of the defoliant, home laid bare, skin burning?

We have little idea as to how a frog might process the experience of being sprayed with herbicide, but we have some idea of what it does: mouth deformities, eye abnormalities, impairment of their breathing ability and predator avoidance response, decrease and damage to the tail length of tadpoles, affecting their burst swim speed. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts.

Breaking down the boundaries

You know, it is odd, but sometimes when scientists conduct their studies on the impact of herbicides on frogs, they spray them with it, observe the impacts, measure, and record. I have no useful way of thinking about this except to say that it disturbs me. And that I think even when we are trying to be better, more careful, we still don’t quite get to the right place: that it isn’t frogs, habitats, populations. It is this particular frog, it is a home, a community. But between the science and the empathy lie hard and often unyielding binaries and boundaries: human/non-human, civilization/wild, emotional/rational. Until we break these down it is unlikely that we will know frog well enough to see what justice for frogs could even look like and what form of reparations would get us there.

Perhaps we need to turn to the frog and permeability for insight. To consider permeability as a means of soaking in otherness – as an aspect of imagination, a pathway to perhaps dissolving, or at least thinning, the binary that currently rules our thinking about animal/human realities.

Showing Green Frog in ditch, photo by Brit Griffin
Frog in ditch
Photograph Brit Griffin © 2022

The writer Jean MacNeil, discussing a writer’s ability to enter into animal consciousness, describes listening to lions in the night, writing that their calls to one another “… took up a splintered space inside me like the other slashes of perception that ripped through there – sunset, sunrise, the wind, the chocolate earth, the olive green of the desert after rain.” This is the outside moving inside, the permeability of the artist’s imagination, as McNeil felt herself “…ebbing away from the world of the human…” so she could pay attention to what she could “… absorb of an animal’s state of mind, the energy they cast around them …”4

So yes, the ebbing away, the moving from actor to receptor. Opening oneself up to another’s suffering is often a natural path towards acts of solidarity. Such acts could include things like habitat restoration and preservation, committing to less lethal lifestyles (limiting both waste and extraction, developing creature-friendly practices) and achieving a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth.

But what happens as the ‘ebbing away’ continues, if the boundaries keep weakening, thinning? When we move from managing for to living with, when Green Frog goes from a vulnerable amphibian to simply my neighbour? What will that relationship look like?

That is as much a question for art as for science, this shift to a relational way of being. This way of being is a dream, a vision that needs to be created from old wisdom and new insights. Quiet and still on the bottom of our imaginariums, seemingly inert, we can consider the weight of damage done, let the burden of it all crack open those silos of thinking, and then we too become permeable, able to absorb and be absorbed by the thrum and the tangle, within and without. Then perhaps we could be living the dream with our fellow traveller, Green Frog.


Find out more 

Brit offered the following notes with her post:

  1. My home sits on the traditional territory of the Timiskaming First Nation. An Algonquin community, the Saugeen Anishabeg have never signed a treaty with the Crown – their traditional territory remains unceded. The need for reparations and a just resolution to this hard taking (and for all Indigenous communities dispossessed of the land) is inseparable from the creation of a liveable, alternative future for any and all of us.
  2. A local mining company doing remediation work in the area came by and took the frog corpses and some water samples for testing. Cause of death? Unknown, probably roadwork; also, the gelatinous coating on the frog was a water mold.
  3. Norman Wagner et al. Questions concerning the potential impact of glyphosate-based herbicides on amphibians, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Vol. 32, No. 8 (2013): 1688–1700, 
  4. Jean McNeil, Them and Us: animal consciousness in fiction, jeanmcneil’s blog, 2021

Brit offered her piece in response to the first in our series of Environmental Keywords posts, Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, which offers reflections on that keyword from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. A short extract of Brit’s piece has also been included in a new page in our Environmental Keywords section, along with further creative explorations of ‘environmental justice’. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Brit Griffin
Brit Griffin
Author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries.
Read More

Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.

A Year of Wonders Under a Circling Sky

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Neil Ansell’s new book. The Circling Sky, an account of a year-long immersion in England’s New Forest, is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy to place and belonging.


1,680 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes 


Neil Ansell is a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and insight, and as others have said of his work, it comes from a place of deep and sustained immersion — into the very essence of place. This new work, The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, demonstrates exactly that quality, offering a sensuous and at times challenging journey to get to know The New Forest in Hampshire, southern England.

Showing the cover of The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, by Neil Ansell
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

Ansell does know something of the Forest to start with, having grown up nearby. And the memories of his childhood forays into wilding — partly to escape the traumas and unknowing of this time — are made physical again by finding a stash of diaries; they act as a framework to refer to, and finally to grow out from, “the ghost of my childhood self”. The forest called to him “insistently”, and he determined to visit repeatedly over the course of a year; he writes in the preface reflecting back upon that year, just before we all were submerged into these pandemic times. And I’ve been reading The Circling Sky over the past weeks of this lockdown, so it’s been a great gift to visit through his eyes a place I know only a little, walking alongside such a guide during these days of homebound reflection.

“It has been a year of wonders, my forest year. I have had the opportunity to experience so much that I had never anticipated: great clouds of spiralling butterflies, a sea of orchids, flowers that I had never even known existed, sudden, unexpected sightings of creatures of great beauty. A nightjar watching over me as darkness fell, falcons on the wing, hawks and honey buzzards deep in the woods. I have listened to the cackle of the geese on the marshes, and the aching trill of the last curlews. I have heard the woodlark sing, for all its lost chords, and the comforting call of the raven, back at last. The year has been thick with scents, heather and furze and bog myrtle, peat and pine and the sour smell of a boot full of bog water. These things give life new meaning.”

Forest – place and belonging

This is the ideal book to help us navigate a way out from a lockdown deep nature observation to whatever this post-lockdown time may entail for us as a species. It is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy for space, place, and all the beings that inhabit and pass through — as we do.

He muses on clearings as spaces to reflect within: both the clearings in the forest and the experience of coming out of dense woodland into a wider space, and also internal clearings: finding some space inside ourselves, to think, rest, plan, get on top of things — to meditate, if you like.

Sometimes he walks with maps, and seeks out remnants of human history and habitation; as the ‘dominant’ species, we seek out our ancestry and can turn up astonishing neolithic knowledge, as well as exasperation and fear at the trajectory we are taking ourselves upon.

The recent history of ghettoising gypsies, who had made some of the forest their space for five hundred years, needs to be widely known, and I’m thankful and yet further saddened to read the evidence he shares of the forcible eviction of the Coopers in 1963 — the most recent manifestation of internal cultural colonialism happening on this small isle, following on from the Highland and Fenland clearances, the Irish Famine, the Enclosure Acts and more: ‘civilisation’ turning within itself in grotesque power.

Some of his visits are focused: to revisit some of his childhood camping spots, for example, or to go to certain areas in the hope of engagement with the wild belonging beings; or else they are sometimes simply “an aimless walk in the woods”. Both approaches provide him with an abundance of riches — the glare from a goshawk’s eye is one that springs out, and he finds the rare Dartford Warbler (the ‘fuzzacker’), in a gorse-bush, after many years of looking (“they look like little plums; plums on a stick”). Elsewhere, “great numbers of painted lady butterflies flutter from heather flower to heather flower. This must be a new generation, born here this summer.” And

“I can hear laughter echoing in the distance — not human laughter, but green woodpecker laughter. I look about, but can’t see it: I can’t pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Instead I see a pair of black and white spotted woodpeckers just overhead, rising and falling in flight like they do, crossing the heath from wood to wood.”

Dartford Warbler
Photograph: Dean Eades Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dartford_warbler.jpg

One eye, however, is on the human scale and how this dominates the land: 

“For the past century or so, the Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission, so there is some commercial woodland here, though the understanding has been that these plantations are not allowed to account for more than a relatively small acreage of the forest. And as public awareness has grown with the understanding that all woods are not equal, and that large, evenly-spaced stands comprised of only fast-growing conifers may result in something close to an environmental wasteland, some have been replaced after felling by a mixed woodland more in keeping with the spirit of the place.”

Photograph showing beech trees in the New Forest
Beech trees in Mallard Wood, New Forest
Photograph: Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13444789

As a novice bird-knower, I’m absorbed in the book’s engagement with birds as individuals and as groups, and his thoughts on migration routes, seasonal movements, and how they engage and belong, within this specific forest eco-system. Stone-chats, or fuzz-jacks, are ones I’m going to seek out. Another thriving group of animals in the forest are the odonata: the dragonflies and damselflies, abundant thanks to the wide diversity of wetland habitats there.

A circling sky, an obligation to see

Ansell’s book is many things and will inspire readers in many ways. What stands out the most for me is that it is both a deep personal meditation on place and belonging — told by the many visits he makes, the more-than-human and the human that he encounters — and the way of describing place. 

“As a writer who loves nature, it would come very easily to me to just walk through the woods, take joy in the animals and plants that I come upon, and depict them as creatively as I can, along with the many small epiphanies that they bring me.

“But it no longer feels that purely observational writing is enough. The time has gone when I could even write a private nature diary, just for myself, and turn a blind eye to the wider implications of what I see. To delight in an encounter with a rare and beautiful bird, while wilfully ignoring why it is rare, why it is threatened, is itself a deeply political choice, and one which no longer feels supportable. And really, nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to see the world for what it is, the bad as well as the good, and we have to blinker ourselves to keep on pretending that it is not broken.”

Within a broader polemic on our human relationship with the living breathing more-than-human that completely surrounds us, and how we’ve got to this place of separation and duality, he identifies (him)self as both observer and that-being-observed, and caught within the inherently broken state of being that has created this divide. It is a state that is absolutely wrapped up in the system of resource use and destructiveness. Neil Ansell’s powerful and urgent writing and observation in The Circling Sky is part of the great process of leading humanity back to a merged connection with Earth.


Find out more

James Murray-White‘s pre-lockdown work was completing Finding Blake (2020), a feature documentary exploring the contemporary relevance of artist, poet and mystic, William Blake — with further explorations on the Finding Blake website. His lockdown ‘project’ has been co-ordinating Save the Oaks, a campaign to rescue oak saplings that were scheduled for destruction in a potential ecocide of the UK Government’s making. A future post-lockdown work project will explore regenerative agriculture in the UK, in documentary form.

James is also co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Rewilding and took part in a recent discussion on Rewilding Humanity as part of Ubiquity University’s Humanity Rising series. As the host, artist Stardust Magick, says: “Rewilding is a golden key to how we can reverse things such as climate change, species extinction and pollution. Since we are part of nature, we can also rewild ourselves: inducing states of being extremely present, inspired, expressed, confident and playful.” In this session, James joined author Jay Griffiths, rewilding coach Rachel Corby, poet Huw Wyn and wild food expert and teacher Sunny Savage for personal discussions of why we would want to create, support and encourage rewilding efforts and how we can rewild ourselves. You can watch the recording of their discussions, introduced by Ubiquity University President, Jim Garrison (with the rewilding conversation starting at just over 2 minutes into the recording).

Neil Ansell has been an award-winning television journalist with the BBC and a newspaper journalist. His previous books include Deep Country, Deer Island and The Last Wilderness. The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest is published by Tinder Press (2021). You can see a short video from Little Toller Books of Neil discussing his earlier book, Deer Island, and leading a wild life.

The New Forest — ‘new’ when it was created in 1079 as William the Conqueror’s ‘new hunting forest’ — has been a continuously managed landscape for a millennium. It was designated a national park in 2005. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England.

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.
Read More
Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
Read More

Owned by the Wood in Winter

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes 


Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.

“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”

Showing the cover of 'The Wood in Winter'
The Wood in Winter’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Cover illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,”  a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

An Ice Age in miniature

In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”

Showing robins and holly in winter
Robins and Holly
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”

‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’

Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.

Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.

“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”

Showing a vixen in winter
The Vixen
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

Find out more

The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).

You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.

Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
Read More

You, Small Creatures, Big Monsters

Video artist Mirjamsvideos shares reflective artworks which subtly demonstrate our relationship with the world, using ugliness in trash and beauty in small things to overcome our lack of insight into systems we’ve made toxic to ourselves and others.


2,060 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + 9 mins video


Mission accomplished: my art made somebody cry.

You read it in the art books, in the intellectual words of curators, art historians: art has the power to change the world! But when you are in the artist’s shoes sometimes it is difficult to see if your work has any effect at all.

First of all, the amount of visuals created is overwhelming, so that sometimes even the most important or stunning messages are hardly being seen. Then, nowadays many important venues for artists’ exposure, like festivals and group exhibitions, call for payment just to submit your work for the selection process. The highest submission fee I have seen so far was €350. Here in Portugal that can be more than half the monthly salary of someone with a full-time job. And last, even if you get the exposure, how often does a visual artist receive the message: “Hey, your artwork really changed my life!”?

A still from YOU, a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

Being an artist in love with the natural world it is heartbreaking to see its man-made destruction, and overwhelming to become aware of all the issues we are up against. But worst of all, seeing how little aware people are of the harm we do and how little some seem to care makes me feel lost as to what I could possibly do to spark a change in people’s minds. And then, these words appeared:

“Such a powerful metaphor … to convey such an important message. I cried and although to be really honest I do cry a lot … I cried because I feel the same and you express it beautifully.”… “Thank you for making us think about such a huge issue in such a delicate and poetic way and for reminding us that no matter how bad and tragic the situation is we keep going and we keep going for love ❤️ “

This message appeared after I posted a work of video art that deals with the problem of pollution in Portugal: forests, parks and streets filled with trash.

Trash - a still from mirjamsvideos' film YOU
A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

I also cried a bit, just because it was so good to know that yes, the work did have an impact, I am making a difference! But it also showed that sometimes the effect of an artwork is of a more subtle nature than to see people sign up for environmental volunteering the next day or pledge not to use plastic bags anymore. It can be more like just another drop in a slowly filling bucket. And without these drops, perhaps the bucket would never fill…

A message for my fellow artists: Keep going, you’re doing important and amazing work!

A still from mirjamsvideos's film YOU
A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

Trash & our toxic system

And here are some words about the work of art that placed a few drops in a few buckets.

As you might have read in my ClimateCultures profile, my road to becoming an environmental artivist was a bit, let’s say, controversial. But it also is a great example of the lack of insight we have into the harm that we actually do (at times even when we think we do good). Our education isn’t actually providing us with an honest view, and neither does it focus on what is important for us to know to create a better life on this planet.

For example, I remember that, in my very early teens, I found an explanation in a schoolbook for why the poor nations in the world are poor. It was said that their geographic areas had fewer resources and therefore they had not been able to develop like us in the western world. Now, in the second half of my thirties, I am reading a book — Ecofeminism, by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies — that provides quite a different explanation: it is our western lifestyle that is keeping the rest of the world poor.

Though we are educated to see colonialism as something of the past, it is still very alive today. Some now call it capitalism or patriarchy and there are other names. It steals healthy lands from people to then fully deplete and toxify them. It grows food that is unhealthy for our bodies. It sells clothing created by and filled with chemicals that are making our rivers (our drinking water) unfit for life. It makes us buy makeup for which, in a faraway land, little girls have died in mines and that is sold in loads of packaging — like all of its other products — that we then dispose of improperly, leaving cities and natural areas littered with trash.

In Grande Lisboa in Portugal, where I live, trash flies freely through the streets, in parks, forests, rivers. It’s very painful to see that people care so little, that people cannot see the harm that they do to themselves, but most importantly, to all life that is innocent, that had no share in our destructive ways.

YOU — a film of a relationship 

YOU is the story of how I managed to deal with this ugliness in my world; from denial to panic, to sadness to finding an enormous piece of trash floating in the stream in front of my house that I couldn’t bear to look at anymore, so I jumped into the water and took it out.

In the last months, besides dreamy landscapes that seem to pass by in slow-motion, scenes that come to me naturally, I started to document the trash lying around. My videos are often characterised by still and long shots in which subtle, real-time movement creates a hint of time passing by, of a story wanting to be told. I first attempted to get this effect from the trash as well. But since trash is often blown around until it reaches windless corners, there was not much movement there to be seen. Even flies would fly away when I arrived.

It made me realise that the trash had to be shown in a different way, it had to make a real contrast with the beautiful: I had to create ugly scenes! Actually, I already had ugly scenes, for I sometimes forget to turn off my camera before taking it off the tripod and putting it back in my bag. These wild and messy accidental shots were perfect to portray the panic and disorientation erupting from a brutal attack on one’s safe and pretty world.

Next to that, I started to shoot many photographs of the trash, for these could be easily edited into fast flashing scenes, like suppressed memories that uninvitedly pop up.

The film is divided into six parts. The first is a beautiful and joyful day in which everything seems perfect and innocent. In the second, the problem really shows itself but is waved away like a bad dream. But the third day is taken over by trash and ugliness, panic and disorientation, followed by the fourth part: a time of feeling completely defeated.

A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020


The narration is inspired by a sense — beautifully voiced by writers like Bhai Vir Singh or Rabindranath Tagore — that the relationship one has with the world is similar to that of a relationship between lovers. The world being the other that you desire to see, hear and dance with. Part five therefore is the lover calling back the other who thinks love had been lost. The love is still there, but some mature and responsible action has to be taken for the love to flourish again. And once this has been done, we arrive at the closing part: a happy ending. Because, although I know that the health of the planet is in a really bad condition, I have to believe that we can still save her. Without that belief, I would be practically dead.

So, is my short film going to save the world? No. Much more action is needed. Most importantly information, awareness, needs to spread. As mentioned before, we are dealing with an incredible lack of insight. Information on the harmful effects of our trash on the planet, on ourselves, is not well spread, or not communicated in a way that people can really relate it to their day-to-day life. A lot of work still has to be done, in this and other areas. This little film was just a little start…

YOU – Environmental Shortfilm, Experimental Video Art from mirjamsvideos on Vimeo.

Small creatures and big monsters

When one sets off on the journey to save the world, she opens up a whole new world for you!

I began to see that despite all the nonsense that we do to her, she keeps nurturing all of life, even us. I got a different understanding of the concepts ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Mother Nature’ and started to regard these words with more respect, for really only a mother can love like that.

Snail - a still from mirjamsvideos' film Small Creatures and Big Monsters
A still from Small Creatures and Big Monsters – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

It also awakened a more nurturing, more motherly aspect in me, once again seeing the small things around me and those that need our help and our protection.

Imagine you had to move around like a snail; delicately touching the world around you with your tentacles, eyes that can stretch out above your head, sliding a large part of your body over the ground, a wall, a rooftop, possibly feeling every little bump and crack beneath you. A gush of wind is like a storm for you, a kilometre could be a whole country, it could be all you will ever see…

It would be quite a different world, right? When you would actually be in contact with your surroundings…

The greatest challenge about making this work was to get a good shot of loads of cars flashing by. Not only because this is just not my cup of tea, but also because I made this work during Covid times when there weren’t a lot of cars out in the streets.

During this time of silence and billboards not changing every week, and after the fear of running out of food had faded away, a serenity entered into my mind and it became easier to see the small, almost still, but sublime beauty that daily life silently presents us with.

Snails are such magical creatures for me and I can observe them for hours. They live in a beautiful dance of elegant clumsiness, seem completely immersed into the world, masters of mindfulness, yet they look like children innocently discovering what happens around them.

They are the antithesis of the common man: stamping around in thick-soled sporty shoes, slamming several doors behind them, turning a key and speeding away, not for a fraction of a second touching the world.

small creatures and big monsters – experimental video art / shortfilm / nature video from mirjamsvideos on Vimeo.

Not only have we gotten disconnected from the world, but also from ourselves. As much as the ‘great thinkers’ of old wanted to release humans from their animal selves, and despite the fact that nowadays some of us have mechanical body parts or were even created outside of the womb, we continue to be biological creatures. It’s nature that keeps us alive.

Maybe if we’d be a bit more like the snails, we could reconnect a little. Our experience of life and each other could be like a clumsy dance of elegance. We would not throw disposable masks, batteries and random trash anywhere on the ground, because that is neither elegant nor clumsy, that is just stupid.


Find out more

Ecofeminism, by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, is published by Zed Books (2014: 20th-anniversary edition).

You can explore some of the poetry of Bhai Vir Singh and Rabindranath Tagore in translation at Poem Hunter

On the subject of pollution from plastic and other trash, you might read Mike Hembury‘s  ClimateCultures post, Coastline Project — Sailing Under Wolf Island’s Baleful Gaze. And on our relationship with other creatures there is In the Path of Its Beam, my review of Annie Dillard’s classic book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There’s much to explore on these and other topics throughout our blog, of course!

Mirjamsvideos
Mirjamsvideos
A video artist documenting little wonders that come our way and the pure beauty of daily life, which is all dances of subtle change over time.
Read More