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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Artist and writer Selva Ozelli marks Clean Air Day with a roundup of international art shows she has curated and participated in during this year of pandemic, spurred on by urgent connections between our environmental and health crises.
2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes + 2 mins video
It has been an unprecedented year, with 13% more large, uncontrolled wildfires around the world compared to last year — spelling dire consequences for carbon dioxide levels, health and biodiversity, as well as the economy. And human actions in burning down ‘Magical Forests’ — as depicted by my childhood friend artist Mehmet Kuran — are mostly to blame, according to a newly released report, Fires, forests and the future.
The year began with Australia’s record-shattering bushfires, burning down a forest the size of England. According to The Guardian, “On New Year’s Day in Canberra the air quality reading was the worst on the planet: 26 times levels considered hazardous to human health.”
In April, nearly 20% of the forested area of northern Thailand burned, and wildfires overtook Indonesia and Ukraine’s Chernobyl region, causing dangerous levels of air pollution. By June wildfires lit up the Arctic Circle, with Siberia registering the most extreme recorded temperatures, resulting in the severest Arctic melting. By August a government researcher told Reuters that Brazil’s Amazon wildfires were the worst in the past ten years. The West Coast of the U.S. slipped into an epic wildfire season, which is still ongoing. These wildfires raging across the world smashed last year’s records for CO2 emissions, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, and aggravated respiratory ailments amid the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic — the most devastating plague to ravage humankind this century.
This unparalleled year brought out the artist and curator in me for the first time in my life. The unprecedented global Covid-19 lockdown allowed me to allocate my time to expressing my thoughts and feelings about climate change and Covid-19 via paintings, in addition to my series of articles on digital technology adoption, solar energy and tax policies in jurisdictions with the greatest carbon emissions.
International art for global challenges
I took my first step as a curator with an art brochure for fellow ClimateCultures artist Rana Balkis’s Infinite Possibilities series. We are now entering what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but still fuelled by coal and fossil fuels — with adverse environmental effects. In this era, not only are we able to transmit our ideas and our art digitally around the world, but also the pollution from energising these digital technologies — as well as diseases affected by pollution. This triggered an urge in Rana to find a new way, through her art, to raise awareness of climate change and environmental consciousness. In Infinite Possibilities — with two paintings selected in the United Nations’ Covid-19 Artwork open brief — working in the style of collage, she intends her oil paintings to expand our curiosity and imagination so we better connect, understand and adapt to our technologically changing world by expanding our perception in the context of our stagnant values, behaviour and norms.
Since our atelier, led by Teymur Rzayev, is a space for many talented climate change artists and interesting artwork, next I curated Atelier Teymur Rzayev’s First Digital Climate Change Art Show, with five paintings that were acknowledged in six international art contests. As I reported for the ClimateCultures Quarantine Connection series, I initially planned our group show to take place at the Balat Culture Center in Istanbul. However, due to Covid-19 social distancing rules, it was cancelled at the last moment. Therefore, I had to quickly switch to launching a digital art show with the assistance of Cem Ustuner, the owner of Pinelo Art Gallery, so it could reach global viewers. Our group show was registered as UN Environment, Ocean and Desertification Days digital events and it received a favourable art review; it got ample international press and was published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change, Hong Kong.
The good reception of this show encouraged me to continue curating ten, and participating in seven, climate change and Covid-19 themed art shows: four group, and three solo. These were published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change Hong Kong, Climate Museum UK and over 160 museums, culture ministries and NGOs in over 40 countries around the world. I am pleased to share these art shows here today, to commemorate UK’s largest air pollution campaign: National Clean Air Day, which was launched in 2017. While this is normally celebrated on the third Thursday in June, due to Covid-19 this year Clean Air Day is celebrated digitally on 8th October in the UK.
Encouraged by the increasing interest of the international community in clean air, and emphasising the need to make further efforts to improve air quality, including reducing air pollution to protect human health, the UN General Assembly decided to designate 7th September as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, which was celebrated digitally for the first time this year around the globe with the highest level of participation from the UN — and Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, where Professor Mehmet Emin Birpınar, Deputy Minister, explained that “the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of clean air all over the world.”
But the largest ever global Climate Ambition Alliance — launched in 2019 and representing 452 cities (including London and New York City), 22 regions in 120 countries, 1,101 businesses, 45 of the biggest investors, and 549 universities — is the ‘Race To Zero’ campaign. It rallies leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery ahead of COP26, where governments must strengthen their contributions to the Paris Agreement, achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.
As part of the Race to Zero campaign, run in coordination with the UN and the City of New York, ex-Mayor of NYC Mike Bloomberg kicked off Climate Week in NYC on 21st September by announcing that Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sierra Club successfully retired 60% of U.S. coal-fired power plants — 318 out of 530 plants — via the Beyond Coal campaign. A day later, injecting new momentum into global climate action, President Xi told the UN General Assembly that China, the world’s biggest polluter of greenhouse gases, pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060 — only a week after the EU committed to increasing its emission-reduction target from 40 to 55 percent by 2030. On 27th September, the last day of Climate Week in NYC, the world’s first shipment of blue ammonia was transported from Saudi Arabia, which has the World’s second-largest oil reserves, to Japan — the World’s sixth largest CO2 emitter — where it will be used in power stations to produce electricity without carbon emissions.
With world leaders taking important steps towards decarbonisation, I curated a group show Clean Air for Blue Skies and my solo digital art show Breathe Life with the theme of air pollution. These two art shows contain six paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests of forest fires, lonely trees, gardens and portraits of artists who were economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic with their shows being cancelled.
My solo art show Breathe Life includes portraits of composer and singer Niall Horan (Heartbreak Weather – Human’s Inertia in the Face of Wildfires) and ClimateCultures artist Renan Kaleli (Pollution), who is working towards preparing an art show Climate Change to Corona, with five paintings selected in the UN’s Covid-19 Artwork open brief. These artists turned to launching digital concerts and digital art shows this year, so I have also included a portrait of Professor Erdal Arikan (Pollution 2), the creator of 5G technology.
Urbanisation & Biodiversity
Serife Akkan explored the theme of urbanization and its impact on the environment and CO2 levels in her solo art show One Door One Hundred Trees. Serife wanted to bring attention to and set alarm bells about the destruction humans are making of their environment — particularly since she witnessed firsthand the rapid urbanisation in Istanbul during her lifetime and its impact on air quality.
One of the concerns associated with predictions of CO2-induced global warming is the claim that the number of birds and their habitat areas will decline. Conserving and restoring the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support natural cycles are essential for the survival and well-being of migratory birds. Artist Fatma Kadir explored the theme of biodiversity in her two solo art shows Bird Watching 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in three international art contests to commemorate biodiversity in birds that are important plant pollinators and seed dispersers.
This July, less sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean than in any other July since scientists began keeping track of it with satellites in 1979. This marks another step toward the devastating and planet-reshaping inevitability of an ice-free summer for the Arctic Ocean. Artist Semine Hazar explored the theme of Arctic melting in her solo art show Sea Watcher. The inspiration was her trip to the Antarctic in 2017 where she witnessed the ice melting and, with a great sound, crashing into the sea. This brought tears to her eyes. Semine’s late husband was a captain. Captains determine their sea routes based on the silent light signals of lighthouses. With her sea and lighthouse themed paintings, Semine wants to draw attention to the importance of oceans to our world and our ecology as the largest carbon sink, and the need for us to guard them. She wants the silent signals from the lighthouses to be visible to all of us, not only captains of our world.
The current high levels of air pollution around the world have contributed to increased rates of chronic respiratory disease and impaired lung function in people of all ages, making air pollution a major and increasing threat to public health according to a study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science. Many of the diseases that are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution are the same diseases that increase the risk of severe illness and death in patients with Covid-19.
In my two solo art shows Art in the Time of Corona 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests, I explored whether climate change caused by CO2 might be one reason for such a terrible global Covid-19 pandemic which spread around the world like a tsunami alongside heightened CO2, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs to the point where we become highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The unprecedented pandemic has put an enormous burden on health systems and professionals worldwide. So far, more than 27.9 million people around the world have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and more than 1,000,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some 18.8 million people have recovered. The pandemic unveiled the challenges and the risks health workers face globally including healthcare-associated infections, violence, stigma, psychological and emotional disturbances, illness and even death. These frontline workers are physically exhausted and emotionally strained from the harrowing experience of serving on the Covid response with respiratory as well as neurological manifestations.
To commemorate their sacrifice I have included portraits of Covid-19 frontline professionals, including Dr Esma Akin, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at George Washington Hospital in Washington DC, USA; Dr Kalbiye Yalaz — the teacher of Dr Akin — who established the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital; Lale Baymur Vanli, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist who is the first psychologist to be hired into the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital and daughter of late Professor Feriha Baymur, who established the first Psychology department at Hacettepe Hospital and University.
Finally, climate change artists Fatma Kadir from her Bird Watching series, Resul Rzayev from his Mountain Air series, and I from my Art in the Time of Corona series donated artwork to the Portakal Cicegi Project, which will be on sale until 15th October 2020 to raise funds for the orphans of Covid-19 frontline health care professionals.
Artist Jo Dacombe shares an exercise she developed for students to respond creatively to the sensory nature of woods, and which she’s adapted for online engagement with nature during Covid19 lockdown as part of her Imagining Woodlands project.
1,760 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes + exercise
Each year, in May, I run a workshop for literature students at the University of York, as part of the Imagining Woodlands module, set up as a result of a collaboration between Dr Freya Sierhuis (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature) and me. My workshop would take place in a nearby woodland, at St Nick’s Nature Reserve, where we would tune in on the sensory nature of the woods and how we could respond creatively to this. This year, of course, the module fell under lockdown, and it was impossible to bring the students together, let alone take them for a walk in the woods.
My task, then, was to try to create something of the experience for students who were living far apart, many in other countries, and who were supposed to create something by working in groups, experiencing a woodland environment and a connection with nature. Quite a challenge.
Luckily, I had been working towards creating art installations related to woodland environments, so I already had quite a lot of material that I could use, including imagery made in various ways, video footage and audio recordings from woodland environments. I decided to create a series of online lectures, each followed by a creative task that would respond to some of my material which I could share online with the students.
Entering nature one sense at a time
I am based in Leicester, which, at the time of writing, is still under an extended lockdown. I am sitting in my garden writing this, enjoying the peace of fewer cars and I can hear a bird chirping to the north. The sun warms my skin and a gentle breeze is moving a strand of hair across my cheek. I am distinctly aware of the importance of the senses when outdoors. I am also keenly aware of how much time we are spending indoors and, for us in Leicester, this continues longer than most. With the students, I knew that many of them would not be lucky enough to have a garden.
One of my lectures starts by considering Richard Long’s early work entitled A Line Made by Walking. A beautifully simple gesture he made in 1967, A Line Made by Walking is simply that — the desire line created by the act of walking up and down a meadow in Wiltshire in a straight line, the simple interaction between a human presence and the landscape. I talked with the students of the importance of recognising the mutual impacts of humans in an environment, how it affects us but also how we affect it. I was trying to use Long’s work to break us free from the idea of the natural environment as a place to visit, a pristine place kept for our entertainment and recreation, but rather as a place that we become a part of when we enter and which we respond to and it responds to us.
If you have ever sat in a woodland environment for a long period of time, on your own, without moving, eventually you become part of that environment. The fauna around you will, eventually, begin to resume the activity that it was taking part in before your arrival. I think we forget that what we see is not what is really there, because as soon as a human presence enters the woods, the woods respond and the fauna, and indeed the flora, react to our presence. Animals hide and birds begin their alarm calls. But, if you sit still for long enough, they get used to you and resume their everyday activity. I have often experienced this, as I will sit for long periods in one place in a woodland when I am trying to audio record.
A Line Made by Walking makes us aware of this. I prefer Richard Long’s earlier works, because they are light touch. He only uses what he finds in a landscape, and creates a statement using his own movements or actions, using no more than his own presence and bodily ability; there are no machinery or tools involved, just moving and rearranging. The works are temporary and, once the wind blows, begin to disappear.
We also looked at some of Long’s text pieces, such as One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984. Many of Long’s walks he describes by making lists of words, and arranging those words into shapes or writing them across a map. This method works well to really focus on the things around us that we notice when we take a walk; Long notes the sounds, effects of the wind, smells, textures and weather from his walks.
My group walks are like this, too. Often, I try to get us to focus on one sense at a time; I ask people to walk in silence, show them how to think through their feet or we sit blindfolded in the woods. For my online workshops, then, I tried to create a way of experiencing something of these senses one by one.
The following are instructions for one of the tasks that I set the students, to create a poetry work in response to my video. The task followed the talk on Long and his work One Hour, and we discussed how poetry could be presented visually on a page; how a circle of words has no beginning or end, and how other shapes across a page can change the order in which you read words, and how we could use words visually. Moving and rearranging. The students produced some beautiful works as a result of this workshop, and I reproduce the activity instructions here for you to try yourself. The first part is an individual activity and the second is intended for work in a group; if you can, do share this post with others you can meet up with (at a safe social distance) or work with remotely.
And if you are still unable to go out, like me, then I hope it brings you a little connection to a woodland environment.
Imagining woodlands — an exercise
Individually: Watch the video below, entitled Woodland Canopy, clicking on Full-Screen mode. This is a video taken by looking up at the tree canopy in a wood. It lasts about 5 minutes. There is no sound on this video.
Try to watch the video without introducing your own music or sounds. The idea is that we are isolating one of our senses, just using our eyes, and not influenced by other senses. Try to watch it in a quiet space or use sound-blocking headphones.
Don’t expect the camera to move or much to happen. You need to really watch and focus for five minutes. In fact, quite a lot happens, but it is subtle. Try to tune in and notice every nuance.
As you watch, make a list of words, a little like Richard Long might as he walks. Just write whatever comes into your head. The words might be about what you see, feel or think; they might have imagined connections or spark memories.
You can watch the video more than once, if you like.
In your group: Now arrange to work with your group, virtually. Choose the favourite words or phrases that you wrote from the video. Share them with your group. You could do this with a Google Doc, on Zoom, or on a VLE Whiteboard.
In your group, try to weave all your words together to form one poem or piece of prose. Give it a title.
Think about how you will present this work. How will it look on the page? Or will you record it as an audio reading?
Why not share your poem or prose response to Jo's Imagining Woodlands exercise -- whether working alone or as a group -- in a Comment on this blog? And do share your reflections on this activity or a creative exercise of your that you've found useful during Covid19 lockdown.
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Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. Jo mentioned that this university activity usually takes place at St Nick’s Nature Reserve in York. St Nicks Centre for Nature and Green Living is a local charity created in the 1990s to transform a former landfill site into a thriving Local Nature Reserve. “The name of the site and the secular charity comes from the middle ages when the area was owned and managed by St Nicholas hospital and church.”
You might enjoy this video from Project Wild Thing, on the science of why engaging with nature is part of being human, and the benefits for our wellbeing. It’s part of the full film, which you can see at the Project Wild Thing website. And The Susurrations of Trees is a recent BBC Radio 4 programme that features recordings of the sounds of leaves on different trees, the words we use to describe these and the poetic and artistic responses to this experience of nature. “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall…” (Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree).
Jo Dacombe contributed Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands — a piece that originally appeared on her blog in 2015 — for Day 29 of our Quarantine Connection series. Her book, Imagining Woodlands, will be available later this summer. You can keep up to date with that by following her blog — where you can also discover the first issue of Imminent, a new zine Jo has launched with contributions from fellow writers and artists.
James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.
1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.
Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.
‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’
The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.
The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has
Spent its whole life In preparation for an instant, Learning to fix its being To a needle point flaring lightless
And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“
‘Falling always out of absence into open air’
Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.
We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.
In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.
Can we nail the world shut long enough to discover everything
I don’t want to know the name of the colour of this sky
And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.
A presence in the meeting point
The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.
I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.
James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.
Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.
And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough Will I learn to feel the wind Without wanting to know What it’s saying?
Find out more
Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.
James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.
Writer Philip Webb Gregg went looking for ways to let nature get to him, and found them on a bushcraft and survival course, with Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, and in his garden in the city.
2,610 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes
“You have to get the fingers right in. Right between the clavicles. Don’t be shy, just dip them in. Feel the breastbone? Right, now tease it apart with your fingers. You need to make space for your thumbs. Got it? Good. Now just pop them in and pull. See? Peels like a tangerine.”
There is an almost inaudible gasp around the semi-circle as J pulls the torso off of another pigeon. Though most of us are disgusted, we’re also more than a little impressed. J has just shown us a beginner’s technique for preparing a pigeon carcass when you don’t have access to a knife. The theory is quite straightforward. J explains carefully and advises us to take notes. Then we are each handed a pigeon.
There are twelve of us on the wilderness course, and only one refuses to take part. The rest dig in, if not quite with gusto then certainly with willing. Considering it’s nine o’clock on a Friday evening and twelve hours ago most of us were sitting at a desk staring into a screen, I’d say this was pretty impressive.
J paces the semi-circle and gives help where needed. The basics for bare-hand pigeon preparation are as follows:
First, hold the pigeon by the legs and dangle — this constricts the bird’s breathing and induces a sleep-like state.
Then, make a V with your forefinger and middle finger. Take the back of the bird’s neck and delicately but confidently give a sharp tug. This kills the bird without unnecessary pain or agitation.
Separate wings by holding the wings in one hand and twisting the body with the other.
Pull head to detach.
Insert forefingers into the chest cavity and make room around the breastbone.
Fit both your thumbs into the hollow of the bird.
Hold with confidence and pull. You will be left with the spine and viscera in one hand (discard these) and the fleshy torso with in the other.
Finally, scrape the edible meat away from the breastbone.
J carefully puts the meat into a Tupperware and drops the carcase in a neatly prepared plastic bag, instructing us to do the same. When someone asks what happens to the contents of the plastic bag, he answers with a jovial grin: “Oh, don’t worry. That’ll go to the badgers tonight.”
Looking for the source
It is the 3rd of May, 2019. I am somewhere in the Peak District, about three hours into my first ever ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ course. So far it’s been an enlightening experience. We’ve covered wilderness health and safety, knife etiquette, how to make a pigeon stir-fry, and simple shelters. Now we’re sitting in the dark around a campfire at the edge of the woods. It should be romantic. It sounds romantic. What is less romantic is the dried blood I still have under my thumbnails. The smoke that insists on stalking me around the camp, filling my nostrils and making my eyes pour. Also, the cold. There is nothing at all romantic about the cold.
I came out here looking for a way to let nature get to me, searching for the notion of nature-as-cure. Cure for our bodies, cure for our minds, maybe even our souls. Of course, nature is not a pill. It can’t be prescribed over the counter or sunk straight to the vein. The concept of nature as medication — as a commodity that can be handed over without thought or cause — is one that I deeply disagree with. It’s yet another facet of our human-centred perspective of the wider world.
Instead, I’m looking for the source. I’m hoping to be reminded of the ‘inter-connectivity’ of things. After a long winter living in the heart of London, I’ve become startlingly aware of the disconnect between the concerns of inner-city life and the real, actual worries of our changing world. This disconnect feels like a form of insanity, an illness, or an obsession with unclean things, which can only end in sickness. So, the theory goes: if this madness is man-made, perhaps I can re-learn sanity from wilderness.
Which brings me back to the pigeon blood under my nails, and the smoke of the campfire. J, our instructor, is telling us about his job. I am fascinated to learn that there has been a huge rise in the demand for bushcraft courses in the last few years.
“Yep,” he says. “Probably Brexit.” We laugh, but it’s not a joke. A recent article in The Times reported certain survivalist organisations getting “30 or 40 calls a week asking questions about Brexit.” It’s a sobering thought, and another sign of the changing world. To think there’s a national shift toward a more desperate state of mind.
Of course, it’s good for the bushcraft industry. But this is in itself is a juxtaposition, as practising bushcraft requires, well, bush: the preservation of which is rarely in the interest of a capitalist society. The figures for UK woodland are somewhat haphazard, but according to the 2018 Forest Research Woodland Statistics we currently stand at 13% — 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.
Now, whether these numbers are positive or negative it’s hard to tell. Some sources see the current percentage as a huge success, stating that they’re higher than they’ve been for almost a thousand years (in 1086 the Domesday Book recorded forest levels at 15%), and comparing them to a devastatingly low 5% at the start of the 20th century. However, other organisations claim that woodland ecology in the UK is under serious threat, and British wildlife in a state of chaos. It’s certainly worth noting that the European average is far higher, at 44%. No doubt there’s a Brexit analogy in there somewhere, if anyone has the energy to find it.
J kicks some ashes over the remaining flames and declares that it’s time for bed. Early start in the morning, apparently.
“Wrap up warm,” he grins. “It’s gonna be a cold one.”
The peace of the wild?
Five hours later I’m lying under a canopy of fallen branches and bracken. The shelter is roughly two meters long and a meter wide. A classic A-frame structure, known to anyone who spent any time in the Scouts or who watches a lot of Ray Mears. It’s a clever design: not only does it shield you from the wind, it also traps your body heat and feeds it back down to your legs. However, tonight is unseasonably cold. My sleeping bag was last used in the hot hills of southern Spain, and is woefully inadequate for middle England in early May.
I lie shivering for hours, cursing my poor planning. When using a sleeping bag it’s often said that you should strip naked because the moisture in your clothing will sap your body heat. After an hour or two in nothing but slim thermals, I decide this is a lie. I resolutely and somewhat awkwardly don all of my layers, from my socks to my gloves. I’m fully dressed inside the bag and still there’s a throbbing numbness in my fingers and toes. Eventually, at around 4am, I decide to give up on sleep, and go to find the campfire instead.
The embers are low, barely a tinge of orange or red. But the ashes are hot and bracken is everywhere. It’s enough. Soon the fire is roaring again, and the kettle is on the flame (I hear J’s voice as I do this: “flames to boil, embers to cook”). By the light of my head torch I settle down to my notebook. Hours pass. The night is deep and full of life. Badger, rustling close. Insects and small mammals living and dying in the understory. Above me an owl asks its endless question: Who? Who? Who? The breeze moves through the trees, making laughter.
Periodically I put more wood on the fire. Logs and branches. Hazel, beech, birch. Their green wood spits and my eyes burn with smoke. They will hurt for days, I know. So much for the peace of the wild. I am long lost in my thoughts when the birdsong starts. Not just owl or bat, real birdsong. Full and loud. The illustrious chorus of dawn. A spring chant of mating and renewal.
I put down my pen and click the head torch off. I sit on a log in the dark and listen to the birds while my eyes run with smoke.
The first day
It is two weeks earlier, 15th of April. I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. I think: now there’s a simile.
Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, people are shouting and roaring. I am roaring. There are banners being waved by children and grandparents alike. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers. They are all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.
Over the next eleven days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and a total of 1,130 people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world.
But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. Hope and determination and positivity. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. But it is England, and the sun is shining. Maybe that’s how real revolution works, not through violence or petitions, but flasks of tea and vegan sandwiches kept in Tupperware.
At one point there is a march of giant papier-mâché skeletons, accompanied by a sorrowful jazz band, a troupe of red-clad mourners, and a coffin. The skeletons are those of animal species, extinct and endangered. People in animal masks hold high the fleshless silhouettes of ape, rhinoceros, lion, tiger, whale, etc. etc. And also: humans, soon to be extinct. A giant magpie walks among the procession, waving a placard: ‘One for sorrow…’ it reads, in thick black Sharpie.
I buy a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on from a man with a supermarket trolley overflowing with them. “For the cause!” he waves a revolutionary fist.
Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, either an MP3 player or a phone, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers — a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon — comes the sound of birdsong.
It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on, and on. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peels of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.
Bushcraft and birdsong
It is two weeks and three days later. Monday the 6th of May. I have just returned from the ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend and I am in the garden of our tiny London flat, kneeling over the raised beds pulling up unwanted life. Weeding is a necessary death, I think. All around me is the furniture we’ve built from up-cycled pallets and discarded planks of wood. ‘Frankenstein furniture’, we affectionately call it.
Today the UN released its biodiversity report, otherwise known as the Summary for Policymakers IPBES Global Assessment. It’s a dense document, replete with all manner of figures and statistics. The numbers are intimidating and complex, but they add up to a series of simple truths:
Due to human civilisation, 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered.
More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater recourses are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
The amount of plastic and pollutants in the ocean have created over 400 ‘dead zones’, the total area of which is larger than the United Kingdom.
The report, compiled by 145 experts over the course of three years concludes that ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. The current global response is insufficient.
I sit in the sunshine and listen as the radio feeds me these facts, these prophecies and warnings, and I think of ancient Rome. I think of Pompeii, of the portents of disaster that were not heeded. I think of Cassandra running toward the Trojan Horse with a burning torch in one hand and an axe in the other, screaming: “Death is within!” But of course, no one listened.
I wonder if this will be any different, as I pluck baby weeds from my bed of courgettes. I think about the nature of human nature, and the difficulty of staying sane in an irrational world. I think about revolution and wilderness and the beautiful indifference of it all. Suddenly there’s a sound. I look up into the sky.
Find out more
The ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend course Philip took part in is run by Woodland Ways, a family-run bushcraft company employing a small close-knit and highly experienced team of individuals.
The Dark Mountain Project recently published Questions for the Woods by Caroline Ross — who enters the liminal territory of the forest and forges a wild camp by a fallen oak — as part of their new ‘Becoming Human’ section, which explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living world.
The 2018 Woodland Statistics report is available to download from Forest Research.
And if you’d like to consider birdsong and, among other things, the difficulty of human reproduction of it – in this case through music – you might take a look at my piece, Interstices of Things Ajar, from March 2017…