Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking

RisingMark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world. 

approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes    


A copy of Rising goes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.

Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:

Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.

Endsickness

Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.

These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.

Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”

‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Cover photo: Michael Christopher Brown / Magnum, Cover design: Mary Austin Speaker

Roots, risk and resilience 

Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.

Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.

As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:

I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.

Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.

Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.

In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”

In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:

… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.

Passwords for a rising world

It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.

rufous hummingbird tail
Selasphorus rufus – rufous hummingbird tail, 1901
Source: birds.cornell.edu

It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…

Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.

Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”

Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”

Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”

Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Source: US geological Survey

Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”

Absence as form

It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.

In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:

“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”

Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”

Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Photo: Elizabeth Rush © 2018

In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”

Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”

As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”

Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”


Find out more

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is published by Milkweed Editions in the US, where you will also find a Reader’s Guide. You can read more of Elizabeth Rush’s writing, including excerpts from Rising, at elizabethrush.net

Bone Landscapes

Bone Landscape, Jo DacombeArtist Jo Dacombe explores sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects. Jo describes her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes 


I often consider the continuum of time, and how the present is part of the past and the future, one influencing the other, both forwards and backwards. Commissioned by Leicestershire Museums to create Myth Maps in 2011, in my proposal presentation for the project I drew a timeline on a sheet of transparent acetate. I held this up and explained that we experience time in a linear way, because of the way we think about it (by ‘we’ I refer to Western thinking; there are other ways of perceiving time, such as cyclical time; perhaps a subject for a future post). Then I folded up the timeline, so that you could still see the line but now it was concertinaed onto itself, and different parts of the timeline could be seen in the same place, one on top of each other. This, I explained, is how time is contained in a landscape.

This happened before I came to work with archaeologists, but I believe was probably the beginning of that particular thread of interest. In 2014 I became Artist in Residence in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester; however, I was working with zooarchaeologists in the Bone Lab and looking at animal bones rather than at landscapes per se. But throughout the residency, it became clear that landscape, bones and animals (including ourselves) cannot be separated out so easily.

Future fossils, future landscapes 

In looking back at archaeological landscapes, we also begin looking forward to what archaeology of the future will perceive of our time now. What will be the future fossils?

Working with archaeologists, my perception of landscape has become framed by the idea of time past and time future — a time continuum that all landscapes contain; in fact landscapes are a manifestation of time, formed by aeons of material shaping and movement.

Jan Zalasiewicz writes of the Technosphere, an era where our mass-produced technological objects will clutter up the world and end up as strange fossilized shapes in the future. He has created examples of what these objects might look and feel like. He tries to imagine how our technological world will shape the stratigraphy of the future. Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, is both studying fossils from the distant past and imagining future fossils. Again, looking back is looking forward.

However, there is another and perhaps more profound change in the landscape that we are creating now. A change that is more directly linked to our bodies, and draws on the interrelationship between ourselves as material beings in a material landscape, and our modern world of mass production. It is to do with our mass production of food and how this affects what our bodies are made of.

During my work with the University of Leicester, zooarchaeologist Dr Richard Thomas and others proposed the idea that one of the markers of the Anthropocene that future archaeologists will discover will be broiler chicken bones. The broiler chicken has a skeleton that is vastly accelerated in its growth, genetically engineered to reach huge proportions within a short life span in order to feed ever-increasing human populations across the world, cheaply. As he explains, there will be thousands of millions of broiler chicken bones deposited into the landscape over our time:

Over 65.8 billion meat-chicken carcasses were consumed globally in 2016 and this is set to continue rising… The contrast between the lifespan of the ancestral red jungle fowl (3 years to 11 years in captivity) and that of broilers means that the potential rate of carcass accumulation of chickens is unprecedented in the natural world.

I cannot imagine the piling of chicken bones of that scale, even for only one year of consumption. But humans have been eating animals and leaving their carcasses and bones for many centuries, and we do not find our landscapes overrun with bones because they decay and return to the earth. Won’t this happen with chicken bones too? Perhaps not, because our way of disposing of so much rubbish has changed; we put this in landfill, piling up all our waste in one place, which changes the way that they degrade. As Cullen Murphy and William Rajthe have written in Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage, “organic materials are often well preserved within landfill deposits, where anaerobic conditions mean that bones ‘do not so much degrade as mummify’”. 

How will this shape a landscape? I imagine future fossils of boulders created from the shape of broiler chicken leg bones. A lump of stone with jutting humerus shapes rippling across its surface.

Future Fossil 3, Jo Dacombe
Future Fossil 3, Jo Dacombe © 2019. Conte and graphite on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

Bodies as bones as landscapes 

In working with Richard, I came to realise that landscapes and bones, and therefore us, are inextricably linked. When we die, we become deposits in a landscape, and our bones become part of the layers in the earth. But before that, our bones are created from our environment; the minerals within the food and water we eat drink and in the landscapes that we inhabit, actually create our bones. Archaeologists can work out the location of where an animal or human has been living by analysing the isotopes contained in the bones that they excavate. We are, in fact, a part of our landscape in a material way, not just a spiritual way.

This idea became two drawings that I created for The Reliquary Project exhibition in 2016: Bone Landscape and Bone Forest. Although the project studied archaeological animal bones, I don’t recognise a difference between humans and animals on a material level, and so my two drawings relate humans to landscapes too.

Bones: Bone Landscape, Jo Dacombe
Bone Landscape, Jo Dacombe © 2015. Charcoal on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

I tried to make stone bones. I cast bones into reconstituted stone, to think about how a fossil is a material transformation of an object. Making a cast is like making an instant fossil. The rather beautiful quality of a bone, the smoothness and whiteness of chicken bones, which are like silken tools in my hand, are completely lost when they become stone. The stone bone is a bit of a monstrosity. Its surface is odd, its weight is wrong, and it seems to have a material permanence that bone does not. I imagine these stone fossils stacked to the height of a landfill deposit, one day to be excavated by future archaeologists as they pick through the sky-high garbage left behind by our epoch.

Bones: Bone Forest, Jo Dacombe
Bone Forest, Jo Dacombe © 2015. Charcoal on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

We are reshaping and reconstituting our landscape by the deposits that we make, including broiler chicken bones. But by doing this, perhaps we are reconstituting ourselves too. As our environment changes, how will we evolve as a part of this interconnected recycling of material that is the process of life, death and landscape?

Future landscapes will be made of bones, and our bones are made of our landscapes… As our landscapes become transformed by the plastic and metal remains of our technological objects, what will we become as animals living on and made from our landscapes?


Find out more

The University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History Bone Lab conducts a range of interesting research projects, including the work led by Richard Thomas on the ‘rise’ of the domesticated chicken as humanity’s most widely established livestock species, and the proposal that one of the markers of the Anthropocene that future archaeologists will discover will be broiler chicken bones: The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere (published in the Royal Society’s journal Open Science, Dec 12 2018). 

Jan Zalasiewicz’s writing on the Technosphere includes The unbearable burden of the Technosphere (published in UNESCO’s journal Courier, 2018): “In the geological blink of an eye, a new sphere has emerged, and is evolving at a furious pace. Weighing thirty trillion tons, this is the technosphere. It includes a mass of carbon dioxide which is industrially emitted into the atmosphere – the equivalent of 150,000 Egyptian Pyramids!” He also wrote A Legacy of the Technosphere (published in Technosphere Magazine, Nov 15 2016), with illustrations by artist Ann-Sophie Milon: “In the end, the technosphere will be buried deep as any other conglomeration of earthly materials, forming timelines of past eras as patterns on the face of cliff faces.” 

Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, was published by University of Arizona Press (2018).

In the Path of Its Beam

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Annie Dillard’s 1974 wonder-filled book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A classic, it nonetheless resists easy classification and explores, in equal measure, horror and beauty in nature: fixing both with Dillard’s hallmark unblinking stare.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


A copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek goes to Veronica Sekules for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is — was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account — a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley — the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting — how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' cover
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Tinker creek: two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later — looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” — Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it around for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the schoolyard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror — and both in abundance — is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow — “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” — is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Artist: Anna Maria Johnson
Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”


Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God

Illustrator and writer Mat Osmond explores shifting personifications of ‘animal mysteries’ in artist Meinrad Craighead’s powerful paintings to look for an understanding of how we might approach art practice and our apprehension of landscape in terms of prayer.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


“Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table”.

– D. H. Lawrence: Apocalypse, 1929.

Whom do you pray to?

In her 2005 book Findings, the writer Kathleen Jamie muses on the nature of prayer whilst sharing fish and chips with a friend. For Jamie, her friend’s question, ‘Whom do you pray to?’, posed in relation to her partner’s life-threatening illness, elicits an unequivocal response. Jamie prays, she replies, to ‘No-one’: to ‘Absolutely nothing’. But, in place of the appalling ‘crush of hope’, of the futility of ‘haggling with God’, Jamie offers a notion of prayer as, more simply, a ‘paying heed’: as an immediate, moment-to-moment attention to ‘the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing’.

It’s a memorable passage. But it’s Jamie’s friend — specifically, his inarticulate, off-hand retort to his own question, when she turns it back on him, ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’ —  that has acted as the spur for this rumination. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer has stayed with me, in part, because it leaves me with a certain residue. I see that I’m not quite in step with her dismissal of a Who — or perhaps, of a shifting plurality of whos — on the other side, as it were, of prayer. So, in a spirit of ‘neither of the above’ to the options Jamie’s passage seems to imply, I want to look for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, on the one hand, and our apprehension of landscape, on the other, in terms of prayer.

Something in her waters

Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.

I’m going to talk about Meinrad Craighead, an American painter whose career has included fourteen years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England. I’m going to talk about Craighead’s intense religiosity — her sense of sustained encounter with a feminine presence that first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.

I’m going to talk about how what happened to Craighead that summer afternoon remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist: as she put it, ‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water’. I’m going to look at how whatever it was that this experience introduced her to, has run like a central current through her work, a current that’s been closely associated, at all times, with her experiences of landscape as ‘sacred place’.

The readings from Craighead’s memoirs that punctuate this talk span her lifetime: from that abrupt childhood awakening, to a year spent alone, aged 28, at the mountain shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, to her eventual return from England, recalled from monastic life by a recurrent dream to what she considers her spiritual home: the desert landscape of New Mexico, watered by the Rio Grande. There she found, in the face of Crow Mother — a Hopi kachina spirit — that feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood. 

And I’m going to talk, in particular, about how this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscape has presented itself within Craighead’s work as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of those ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.  

O Fountain Mouth, 1989, by Meinrad Craighead
O Fountain Mouth, 1989
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

Angels talking back                 

If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. 

First, though, a word about angels and creative practice. In his 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Van Boekel offers a rough — and clearly, leaky — distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’ by artists working within an ecological paradigm.

On the one hand, Van Boekel observes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, with artists adopting an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitude to their environment.

In bringing Craighead here, it’s the other of Van Boekel’s categories that I want to consider, that frames art practice as ‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, one that involves a ‘dynamic, open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.

An assumption underlying Van Boekel’s distinction is that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. What I want to look at here, then, is the nature of the intimacy, the kind of seeing, to which Craighead’s figurative improvisations invite us.

But to name the kind of seeing I have in mind, I need to take a step back. Van Boekel’s framing of art as an emergent encounter with images that necessarily come ‘from behind one’s back’, and his labelling of this category of practice as angels talking back, are both informed by the work of the Jungian art therapist, Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and inviting their images to talk directly back to them.

Likewise, McNiff’s notion of art as a daemonic, transformative force, one capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and participant, flows directly from the work of the archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. So it’s to Hillman that I’m going to turn, here, for a way to approach the kind of seeing we find in Meinrad Craighead’s work.

Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992, by Meinrad Craighead
Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

The captive heart

It was at Montserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna. Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.

There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Montserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.

So how might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her overtly figurative improvisations, and her engagement with landscape? To answer that, I’m going to consider the way that imagination and prayer are approached in his seminal essay The Thought of the Heart, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: of what the heart is, and of what the heart does.

Before he can get to this, Hillman has first to set out our prevailing stories about the heart: those accreted fantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture. The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, a complex organic machine.

But prior to this, and suffused throughout our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seat of our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’ is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.

What would it mean, then, if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that ‘she works from the heart’? Especially if that phrase came parceled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion: of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour.

If any of that sounds familiar, then I’d suggest that what we find at work here, for all our post-religious, secular criticality, may turn out to include a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well with its persistent interior person — a person who we take to be somehow or other set apart from Van Boekel’s ‘circumambient world’.

And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this story – not least, within the confessional industries that it fuels – we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and — so the story goes — ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both’.

Himma

In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.

Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European Alchemy, and, through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma — a word which translates, roughly, as the thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.

Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart, is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing which arises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare ‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’

Woman with Ravens, by Meinrad Craighead
Woman with Ravens, 2000
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

An animal mode of reflection

The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies. 

Of the many aspects of Hillman’s reading of himma that I find illuminating in respect of Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as le coeur de lion, the lion in the heart. What this image remembers, Hillman muses, is that imagination constitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.

In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world — as its own efflorescence, so to speak. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it.’ And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.

And what of intimacy? What of the interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is ‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’. 

This is the species of imagination that I recognize in Meinread Craighead’s paintings. Not the ‘bending-back’ of ironic, critical reflection, nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What I see in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. Its something more urgent – more needy, even – than the self-bracketing conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And to my eye, the gaze that Craighead’s work returns to us offers something altogether more interesting.

In both Craighead’s words and her images, what I read, above all, is a dogged, needful return to the slow work of recuperation — to that ‘recuperation of the lost soul’ which both Hillman and McNiff would propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology, and prayer.

We began with the notion of art as a mode of attention to the self-presenting world. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, I find the way of seeing that Craighead’s work invites me to. And if her lifelong imaginal recuperation can be seen as a form of prayer, then I think that such prayer is also, like Jamie’s, an attentiveness — a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive ‘decorum’ which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘in the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’


Find out more

You can explore Mat Osmond’s words and images at Strandline Books

You can see more of Meinrad Craighead’s art at meinradcraighead.com. The site also lists her out-of-print books – The Litany of the Great River (1991), The Mother’s Songs (1986), The Sign of the Tree (1979) and The Mother’s Birds (1976), but also a current retrospective of her art and essays: Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God (2003) edited by Katie Burke.

James Hillman’s The Thought of the Heart (1981) and other works are available from Spring Publications.

Kathleen Jamie’s essay, Fever, appears in her prose collection, Findings (2005), published by Sort of Books.

Shaun McNiff’s Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination (1992) is published by Shambhala.

Jan van Boeckel presented his paper, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: Art Making and Intentionality in nature experience, at the Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, in Ayr Scotland in 2011. It is published by Intellect.

Questioning Prayer? Space for creative thinking...   

"This post is framed, in part, as a response to Kathleen Jamie's rhetorical question 'Whom do you pray to?'. What notion of prayer, if any, bears on your own approach to the predicament of the Anthropocene, the large-scale changes that human activity has set in motion? Does prayer have a place in articulating a response to anthropogenic calamities? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on your approach to creative practice?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

 

‘A Plastic Ocean’ at North Devon Arts

Environmental artist Linda Gordon reflects on a recent exhibition she contributed work to, where artists responded to the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’, and the issues of plastics pollution of the oceans that produced such a diversity of art.


approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes  


A couple of months ago, members of North Devon Arts viewed the film A Plastic Ocean, the documentary directed by Craig Leeson, which investigates the dangerously escalating problems relating to plastics production and disposal — particularly the horrific amount that’s continually being dumped in our oceans. We decided that ‘A Plastic Ocean’ was going to be the theme for our annual Summer Exhibition.

We were to limit dimensions of 3D works, and the width of 2D works, to one metre. Given these constraints, when I saw the final results, I was amazed at the huge variety of approaches, in terms of both the art-making processes as well as the exhibition theme itself. Each work was as unique and special as the person who made it. From abstract to origami; from small sculptures to traditional seascapes with something not quite traditional about them.

Here I have arbitrarily picked out a few contrasting pieces, to give you a flavour of the show:

‘You can’t even cry, because you don’t even care’  – Fiona Matthews

'You can’t even cry, because you don’t even care' - Fiona Matthews
‘You can’t even cry, because you don’t even care’ – Fiona Matthews © 2017. Ceramic sculpture, with assorted plastics. www.fionamatthewsceramics.co.uk Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

A globe of the world is burst and torn asunder with a mass of plastic spewing up from its innards. Prominent amongst this are hundreds of little white plastic pellets, the ones that sea birds mistake for fish eggs, and feed to their chicks. Like several other works in the show, the beauty of this piece made it all the more chilling.

Fertile ValleyJann Wirtz

Fertile Valley - Jann Wirtz
Fertile Valley – Jann Wirtz © 2017. Mixed media, predominantly dyes and inks. http://www.northdevonarts.co.uk Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

Jann is in the habit of collecting and disposing of all sorts of plastic that has been dumped in the river near her home. This of course is bound to disintegrate and make its way towards the sea.

Peering into the beautiful blue watery background of ‘Fertile Valley’, among the drifting debris, I was able to pick out a glyphosphate (herbicide) container and a fragment of old plastic feed bag, all falling slowly downwards, together with scraps of printed warnings about their potential dangers. Mixed up in all this were barely visible ghostly water creatures, a vital part of our food chain – all sinking back into oblivion as though they had never existed.

Garbage Island – Robin Lewis

Garbage Island - Robin Lewis
Garbage Island – Robin Lewis © 2017. Spray Paint and Glitter. www.lewisart.co.uk Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

Robin has used tantalisingly attractive, but potentially toxic materials for this powerful painting. It refers to the massive quantities of discarded plastic carried by ocean currents, and continually congregating in mid ocean to form what we now know as ‘Garbage Islands’. (The most notorious of these is, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, details easily found on the internet.

A Plastic Ocean Paula Newbery

A Plastic Ocean - Paula Newbery
A Plastic Ocean – Paula Newbery © 2017 Water-soluble paint and Inktense pens. http://www.northdevonarts.co.uk Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

By contrast, Paula has specifically chosen environmentally-friendly materials only for this tranquil view of a well-known local beach scene: looking across Bideford Bay from Crow Point towards Northam. Looking carefully, I was able to pick out a number of coloured bottles, half-buried amongst the shingle.

Paula is a member of the Marine Conservation Society, and took up their challenge to go for 30 days without the use of single-use plastic. Needless to say, she — and I am sure many others — failed. Paula’s second exhibit, carefully presented in a Perspex display cabinet, is a plastic bottle overlaid with a multitude of colourful scraps from all the plastic she was unable to avoid.

MCS challenge, 30 days - Paula Newbery
MCS challenge, 30 days – Paula Newbery © 2017 Mixed plastics Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

Beach WearLinda Gordon

Beach Wear – Linda Gordon
Beach Wear – Linda Gordon © 2017 Performance photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 https://throughstones.wordpress.com

An image of me, crawling out of the sea, tangled up in plastic beach litter that I had collected and strung together. I carried out this performance some time ago, but felt it relevant to extract and print this single photo from it.

During the Preview on the Sunday afternoon, I found myself drifting in and out of several spontaneous and animated discussions around the appalling problems that we humans have created for ourselves, relating to the worldwide use of plastics.  The exhibition as a whole, seemed to trigger a strong and instant response in people to these issues.

Not only that, but when I returned a couple of days later to take photographs, a couple of visitors walked in and immediately engaged me in conversation about this whole topic. I was happy to be able to add a little bit more information to what they already knew.

 

Plasticity: Tish Brown © 2017

All art works © as shown; all photographs © Linda Gordon 2017

For me, this excellent and unassuming exhibition shows the power of art to elicit an authentic response; to move hearts and minds; to get people talking, and to encourage commitment to the true realities of life. Hopefully this awareness will continue to spread and get the issues talked about, and help turn things around – for the sake of ourselves and future generations.

'A Plastic Ocean’ runs until 2nd September at the Stables, Broomhill Art Hotel, near Barnstaple, North Devon.

Find out more

North Devon Arts is “a friendly and informal network of professional and amateur artists and anyone with an interest in the arts across North Devon.” For information – Members of the Committee are listed on the website Contact Page, together with their email addresses. The exhibition is at Broomhill Art Hotel until 2nd September.

You can see a clip of Craig Leeson’s film A Plastic Ocean and find out about future screenings, how to arrange a local screening and help make its campaign, We Need a Wave of Change, a global movement. The site also has plenty of information on the issues and updates on projects by the charity, Plastic Oceans Foundation.

You can find out more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at Wikipedia, and this short and very interesting podcast from NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) explains what an ocean garbage patch is and isn’t, how they form and what we can do about them.

The Marine Conservation Society has extensive information on many aspects of the marine environment and, as Linda mentions, sets us a plastic challenge to see how long we could give up single use plastics: how long can you last?

Questioning Plastics? Space for creative thinking...   

"In what hidden ways does plastic connect your local community to the nearest sea and the most distant ocean? How can art help reveal and break the chains of pollution?"

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.