“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s recent book, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis. This captivating and challenging read urges the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.

approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.

Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818
Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818 in ‘Engravings of the Skeleton of the Human Body’ by John Gordon).

The mind of the wild

In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.

The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”

Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.

Learning to die

In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:

To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.

Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:

Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.

The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!

Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it. 


Find out more 

James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entry and sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project and one of the creative minds behind the Waterlight Project: both of whose websites I edit.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky is published by University of Regina Press, Canada (2018).

“Firestone far beneath our feet”

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller BooksFilmmaker James Murray-White spent a winter break in Cumbria to edit footage for his film, Finding Blake, and he took time out for ClimateCultures to review Cornerstones. This new collection of writing explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth. 

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes  


Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.

Liquid light Photograph by James Murray-White
Liquid light Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Underground dream-worlds

The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.

Going underground Photograph by James Murray-White
Going underground
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.

Cornerstones

As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller Books
Cornerstones
Little Toller Books © 2017
Cover design: Rodney Harris, ‘Strata of England & Wales’: www.rodneyharris.co.uk

Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.

Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.

There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.

On the borders of change

Great Whin Sill, Hadrian’s Wall country
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2007

I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.

I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.

Find out more

James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entry and sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project, whose website I edit.

Cornerstones – subterranean writings (2018, edited by Mark Smalley) is published by Little Toller Books. 

You can hear the four original Cornerstones episodes of the BBC Radio 3 the Essay series on BBC Sounds. 

You can read about Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity (2010) and Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010) at Wikipedia.

Do also check out our August 2017 post from ClimateCultures Member Oliver Raymond-Barker, Beyond Tongues: into the Animist Language of Stone. And you can also read Shaped by Stone, a very brief review on my small blog of an essay by Tom Baskeyfield, writing in the new TERRA collection from the Dark Mountain Project. Oliver and Tom are both photographers with impressive portfolios that include Anatomy of Stone and Shaped by Stone respectively.