Imagining Woodlands Under Lockdown

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.

Imagining woodlands - showing an ancient oak in Sherwood Forest
Imagining woodlands – ancient oak
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 jodacombe.blogspot.com

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.

Find out more

Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. You can explore the original module description, including a very useful suggested reading list.

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 can see Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking at the Tate website, and you can find out more about desire lines or paths in this piece by David Farrier for Emergence Magazine, which we featured on our Views from Elsewhere page in May 2020.

And you can see Richard Long’s One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984 at his website.

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.

Jo Dacombe
Jo Dacombe
A multimedia artist creating work, installations and interventions, interested in mapping, walking, public space, sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects.
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All the Little Gods Surrounding Us

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

Presence: Showing 'Owl', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Owl’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

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”.

Presence: Showing 'Kingfisher', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Kingfisher’
Art & text: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

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

and

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.

Presence: showing 'Rook', from the collection 'Winged' by James Roberts
‘Rook’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

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.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Gulp! Water Choices, Stories and Theatre

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre projectTheatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre project

Gulp! More than a drop

It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?

Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! with audience participation
Gulp! participation
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.

Working together in water scenarios

In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! in performance
Gulp! performance
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

Small choices matter

Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp and small choices on water
Gulp! choices
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.

Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.


Find out more

You can read Adam’s ClimateCultures post on The Bone Ensemble’s 2017 climate change production: Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and explore The Bone Ensemble website.

As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!

The UN Water Development Report 2020 – Water and Climate Change is available at the UNESCO website, along with a ‘Main Messages’ download.

For an explanation of the d/Deaf distinction, see this post from the Royal Association for Deaf People. 

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.


1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions aA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Necessary baggage

A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.

Showing a basket as a universal carrier
Universal carrier
Photograph: เอกลักษณ์ มะลิซ้อน  (Pixabay)

In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.

You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.

Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.

Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.

Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?

My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.

Perfect coffee pettiness

It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.

Showing coffee beans and cup - search for perfection
Perfect beans
Photograph: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.

Thus, coffee was born.

Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.

Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.

A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.

This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.

For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.

I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?

Search engine unconsciousness

We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.

Showing question marks in our search for truth
Search?
Photograph: Arek Socha (Pixabay).

There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.

Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.

These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.

Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.

It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.

In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.

For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.

It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.


Find out More

Ursula Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is published by Ignota Books (2019) with an introduction by Donna Haraway. And you can read this article from August 2019, where Siobhan Leddy argues convincingly that We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.

You can explore coffee’s mysterious origins in this 2010 piece for The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos. And dip your toes into the more accessible waters of the collective unconscious via the collective consciousness that is Wikipiedia. Searchenginehistory.com has this … history of search engines (from 1945 to just before tomorrow).

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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Towards an Erotics of Place

Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape

My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…

Desert Quartet - the cover of the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.

It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.

Dungeness, southern England’s ‘shingle desert’
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

Desert Quartet — desert life

Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!

Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.

Mongolia
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories…  Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.

My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways. 

A desert calling

Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.

At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.

Desert Quartet - showing a page from the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
‘Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape’, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank

I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…

“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.


Find out more

Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).

You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, at Unusual Places. And there is more to discover at Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”

The Visionary Spirit: Awakening to the Imaginal Realm in the Transformocene Age by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, UK (2018). You can read an interview with Mick about the book: Awakening to the Transformocene Age. Mick talks about his previous book, The Unselfish Spirit, in this 2014 podcast and you can watch his recent talk at the Into The Wild Festival, Summer 2019, introduced by James.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding is the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”

You can watch James’ film Steadfast, and more of his films, on Vimeo. And don’t forget to check out Finding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts, “Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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