“Water’s Rising, at Their Ankles Now…”

For our latest Members’ Post, we see James Murray-White return to ClimateCultures fresh from a trip to Hull, City of Culture 2017. James brings us his review of the remarkable and immersive performance of ‘FLOOD’, a production “stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world.”

This past weekend I happened to be in Hull, City of Culture 2017, and stumbled upon an extraordinary multi-media and immersive piece of theatre about climate change and the human condition. ‘FLOOD’ is a year-long project, written by James Phillips and produced by Slung Low, a theatre company based in Leeds that ‘specialise in making unlikely, original and ambitious adventures for audiences.’ And they excelled with this production, told in a dock on the edge of Hull.

Part climate change drama, part biblical parable of human foibles and virtues and community self-determination, and chiefly a story of humanity telling its story in and about a “city by the sea”, ‘FLOOD’ is a captivating, urgent, and sometimes mesmerising drama, told in the water it tells of. 

‘FLOOD’ Omnibus opening night Photograph: James Phillips © 2017 http://flood.hull2017.co.uk/flood-omnibus-opening-night/_mj47736/

Setting it and performing it in the dock – with the audience clustered round the railings looking down into it and the action happening on a floating set tied together and sometimes coming apart, with little boats navigating to and from them, and even actors in the salty brine, “near drownded” – makes this a literally immersive piece, engaging the audience’s senses while we huddled and shivered as one in awe, and a lot of sadness.

“A drowned girl but….”

The drama takes us into several characters’ experiences of sudden, violent change. It’s held by a central character, who we come to know as Gloriana. We first meet her as she’s ferried into dock by a fisherman and his son, telling of “one net empty of all fish. In it, one hundred life jackets. Orange like those migrants leave on beaches. One hundred life jackets and a girl. Curled pale naked, just bandages on hands. A drowned girl but….”

Gloriana is very much living flesh and blood, but after her ordeal has resurrected into a reflection back upon each characters’ motivation and input into life. She’s received by Jack, an officer in a detention centre, and their lives become interlinked. Gloriana meets Johanna in the centre, described as an Iraqi Christian; and then Natasha – former Overseas Minister and now Lady Mayor – and her daughter Kathryn. These and the fisherman and his son Sam all hold the drama fast and furiously, bound to each other as water to land, and sea to sky, as humans caught in trauma, seeking salvation.

Slung Low’s Flood Part Two: Abundance By James Phillips Gets Underway Image: Hu17.net © 2017 http://www.hu17.net/2017/04/13/slung-lows-flood-part-two-abundance-by-james-phillips-gets-underway/

The drama reaches into our current migrant crisis, and the ex-Minister’s role is partly to provide an exploration of guilt and political responsibility around this issue. This theatre piece took place in a city covered in statues to its former ‘great and the good’, from Ferens and Wilberforce to De La Pole, all of whom are honoured but who all might now be seen to be culpable in the light of current political thinking, be it on votes for war, whaling, lack of action on carbon measures, or similar. The presence of a character who has sanctioned wars, who now has the opprobrium of her daughter and protestors outside her house and who takes a role as a leader when the floating islands become a necessity, opens up a whole strand of moral dialogue, guilt, and responsibility. Like writer James Phillips, I’ve also spent time volunteering at the Calais Jungle, where many thousands of refugees have headed in the hope of getting to the UK; once you witness such a place and hear some of the stories about fleeing atrocities, both human and climate-caused, then the full spectrum of humanity gets peeled back, and any response is a response.

A thing worth living for

Once the characters are afloat on the islands, bound together in tents, nailed together with pallets and bodged together as a refuge, then we see three different and distinct camps. The first, led by Johanna, uses faith to hold itself together, even evolves to sending out missionaries in boats to proselytise that faith to other survivors (which then horribly backfires). The second, led by Natasha, is titled Renaissance as a bastion of ‘law and order’, despite the Government in the South falling and power being shown to be nothing other than what we construct it to be. And in the third camp Sam, the fisherman’s son, gains power by violence and control; torture and murder dominate on his island. None of these three options appeal to me – so I would be a lone wolf, snaking between them all in my kayak, bartering fish in exchange for human contact and a little piece of the values that each offers.

Gloriana lives, and is either revered (by Johanna) or feared and hated (by Sam), and tries to reflect back to every character their inner nature; including Kathryn, with whom she falls in love. Her journey as a presumed fleeing migrant, with letters carved into her fingers and signs of torture upon her body, to death in the water, resurrection in the net and then becoming an angel upon the water – and literally sailing off into the rising sun – is the redeemer’s journey. The arc of the entire play is that all we have as humans is love. Faith may sometimes help, and faith will bring troubles upon us, but love will give us something worth living for. An unusual thread of lost love between the fisherman and the Lady Mayor brings an extra complexity that weaves within the narrative.

The night I saw FLOOD was the omnibus event, so we saw part two on the water, were herded to a nearby marquee to watch part three on a screen, then returned to the dock for part four. This helped to engage us further, pulling us together with the bribery of heat and tea and food, reminding us of communality and needs, while the characters were suffering the greatest calamity known to humankind.

‘Thousands Of Life Jackets Laid Out In Parliament Square In Moving Tribute To Refugees’ Image: SWNS news agency © 2016 Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com

“Where we are, we are, and on we must go.”

Part one of this epic had already been screened online, and I understand that part three will be available for a limited time on BBC iPlayer, and clips are on the FLOOD website. So the scope of the production is being mediated both live and online and I hope it reaches a wide audience, as it needs to be seen. Standing watching the drama – encompassing back-projection onto water, water sprayed as rain above the actors, fire on stage, and the constructed encampment-islands amidst the water, as the characters become migrants on the world’s seas – is a visceral experience which will forever bind me to the story and the experiences being told. That is very different to watching anything on a screen, but the two ways of experiencing this drama make for a very powerful and urgent experience.

For me personally, as a graduate from Hull University’s drama department, which I left many years ago to head off into a career in the arts and became disillusioned by a theatre system that seemed dull and even unconscious during the 90’s and noughties, seeing this production in Hull, amidst a vibrant year of culture – stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world – is joyous and so exciting.

The bigger picture, well – where will we go from here? As creatives, mediating dialogues and inquiry across artforms, as leaders, as animals within a system, and as a species afoot in the world? We may be bringing the rains down upon our heads, and there may be individuals or systems we can follow, and there will always be love.

“One dawn sailing far out towards the rising sun.
Where we are we should not be and yet
Where we are, we are, and on we must go,
What new world lay ahead we did not know,
Eyes facing front, vanishing world behind.”
 - FLOOD, by James Phillips

And the last line of stage directions from the play: ‘A little boat disappearing into the light. ‘

Find out more

You can catch up with the FLOOD story and watch videos at its official Hull 2017 site, and with other Hull UK City of Culture 2017 activities.

The BBC’s showing of Part 3 wasn’t available at the time of publishing this post – but it’s the BBC, so it will no doubt be round again before you know it! Check out the episode page on their site.

You can see ‘FLOOD – the story so far’ on YouTube

You can explore some of the issues around sea level rise, coastal change and flooding affecting the Humber region, including Hull, at the EU FloodProBE site.

You can find out about the work of the UNHCR  the UN’s refugee agancy – on climate change and refugees.

Questioning the camps? Space for creative thinking...  

"In FLOOD, the people divide into three camps - faith, law and violence. Snaking your way between these camps and more, belonging to none, what tangible things would you kayak between them to show each a broader way?"  

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link! 

 

Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone

Our latest Members’ post comes from artist Oliver Raymond-Barker, who I met at art.earth’s In Other Tongues conference in June. Here, he shares the talk he gave there, which I was keen to feature on ClimateCultures.

Stones that whisper, stones that dance, that play on pipe or fiddle, that tremble at cock-crow, that eat and drink, stones that march as an army – these unhewn slabs of granite hold the secret of the country’s inner life. 

– Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones.

Slate 3
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

As a climber I have the visceral knowledge that stone is alive. Minutes, hours, days and years spent on rock have given me an opportunity to listen to its song. It crashes and rumbles, creaks and groans, whistles and hums. However, it lives and speaks to us on another level – a subtle yet altogether more powerful pitch – a language beyond tongues.

This animist language is what I am here to explore with you today – through looking at a range of literary references but also through an account of my own personal experience, as ultimately this is the only knowledge I feel I can truly trust.

Language and Technology

Curiously, for a symposium and a talk that is centred around communication in other tongues, I would like to start by talking about language! However, I feel it necessary to do this in order to trace a path to our current position and to give context.

I begin with some words by Narendra, an Indian writer who has spent many years living with and writing about the Adivasi people of Bastar in India. The quote is taken from a piece of writing entitled ‘The Language of Issues’. In it Narendra attempts to describe to his friend Nureti (an Adivasi local) the modern language of climate change; i.e. in terms of carbon emissions, carbon footprints, changing crop patterns etc. This is the response he receives from Nureti:

“Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of the earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do good things for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it speak. What you say are your words. Your word has taken away the vitality and the promise; but like our gods it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word too.”

Nureti’s words highlight the gaping chasm that has developed between older, so called ‘primitive’ understandings of the world and our own separatist world view. Nureti recognises the power of words and how their repetition can perpetuate a way of being that has no future.

Listening to a recent talk by the artist Sean Lynch, I realised how far we have travelled down this path towards a language of ‘malady and impairment’ (quoting Narendra again). Lynch has been researching mining in Cornwall as part of an upcoming commission. Of particular interest to him was the language employed by the mining industry; what he called a kind of ‘corporate mono-lingualism’. This modern day lexicon is used to legitimise the flagrant taking of profit from the earth whilst at the same time distancing us from the land that is being worked. One such term the industry uses is ‘overburden’, which generally refers to the surplus material that lies above an area of ground suitable for economic exploitation. For the industry this is a purely technical term to describe waste material and it makes no reference to any cultural or environmental loss that may be incurred.

The antithesis to this inanimate mode of perception can be found in Alan Garner’s book Strandloper. Based on the true story of William Buckley, an 18th century man from rural England, the novel charts his journey from England to Australia, whence he is banished for being involved in Shick-Shack day – an ancient fertility ritual. After wandering in Australia for more than a year he is adopted by a group of Aborigines who believe him to be Murrangurk, a great hero of their people. In the course of the book he is sent by his adopted people to talk with another tribe because of their need for stone. Billi-billeri, the chief of the tribe responds to his request thus:

“If at once all the world comes for axes,” said Billi-billeri, “they will eat until Bomjinna is no more, and the Wurunjerri-baluk, the Kurnaje-berring, the Boi-berrit are no more, and the land will die in its Dreaming. What will it matter then if the sky should fall? Answer my dream.”

Murrangurk cannot answer this dream (statement) by the chief. He knows the truth that when the mountain (Bomjinna) dies, the people will also die. The two are so inextricably linked through ritual, story and experience that it prohibits the aggressive exploitation of the stone. For the tribe there is no dichotomy between inner and outer worlds, all is unity and this is explained through their stories and dreams.

Returning to our contemporary use of language I would like to take a closer look at a word used earlier in this talk: environment. A frequently used term, I feel it be problematic and indicative of our move away from a unified whole. According to the Collins dictionary it can be defined as: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time. The issue here is once again the reinforcing of a separatist paradigm, I return to Narendra’s essay to further illustrate this point:

‘….it was probably in the 1970’s that language began taking its strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an instance, when the word environment arrived sometime in the 80’s, it was difficult to explain to my father. He was an educated man….. Issues have replaced languages; they have guile and deception.’

Moving on from language I would also like to mention technology and its role in our anthropocentric understanding of the world. In her book The Re-enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik makes the case that, “Since the enlightenment…our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view.”

Instead of our actions being guided by daily, physical perceptions and experiences we are allowing ourselves to be driven by technology and progress, a rationale that is quantifiable and therefore seen to be more valid. Gone is the belief in story and myth as a way of being. However I am no Luddite! It would be rash to reject the opportunities that modern technology provides. The question therefore is – How do we reconcile these two worlds that seem so at odds? I guess that is one of the key reasons we are all here today.

Speaking from personal experience I also know that technology can be a useful tool in enabling haptic understanding. Climber Greg Child talks about this potential in his article Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher:

‘A surfer planing down a wave or a biker leaning into a fast corner isn’t thinking of board dimensions or mechanics.They’re in there for the ride. Our intellect has given us technology, which has given us a specific variety of devices suited to escapism, which in turn stimulate our emotions. A full circle where man has used his intellect to stimulate that intellect. Technology is the conveyance to put one in these distant situations. On arrival the metaphysical becomes as apparent as the physical, and ideas, feelings, surroundings and events merge into a total experience that leaves one slashing for words.’

Over the years I have been drawn to the kind of extreme situations that Child describes. Technology, in the form of a climbing rope or surfboard for example, has often been the key to some of my most vital moments. Continued exposure to mountains and rockfaces, prolonged immersion in lakes, rivers and oceans; these elements have eroded some of the harsh corners of my intellect, allowing me the time and space to exist and interact in a different way.

It is one of these experiences that I would now like to relate to you.

Dali’s Hole
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

Slate

I had never climbed on slate before. In fact this was one of my first climbs since arriving in North Wales. I had never climbed with Kenny before either – a hard, compact and quiet man, yet with a humour that glinted at you from under the surface. He gunned the small car down the pass, taking the sharp corners in a competent yet terrifying fashion. I craned my head up at the mythical faces – Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Clogwyn y Grochan – the fast beating heart of Welsh rock climbing. My palms began to sweat. Llanberis was past us in a beat – we wound our way up through the grey faced villages of Deiniolen and Dinorwig, rolling to a stop at the Bus Stop quarry, the gateway to the slate. Packs on, ropes slung across our shoulders like sleeping serpents we began the walk into the quarries, the old workings to our left and right greened over with pioneer species such as silver birch, the slate walls enveloped in moss and lichen, the atmosphere intimate and inviting. We emerged by the derelict cutting sheds and the true scale of the quarries imposed itself. Half of the mountain has been gouged away; a giant bite from a mythical creature. Yet on closer inspection I began to see the intricate madness of this hole in the hill – inclines, engine houses, levels…..my eye slowly panning across the years of toil and ingenuity that built this monument.

We were heading for the heart of the quarry – dubbed California by climbers. Access to this inner sanctum of the slate is gained by skirting the side of Dali’s Hole, so named because of the surreal dead trees that appear from the blue lagoon in periods of dry weather. On the other side of Dali’s Hole lies a black tunnel entrance through which we must walk to reach California. The floor was littered with fragments of slate that chattered and chimed under our feet – a noise synonymous with climbing on the slate. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of the quarry amplified the moment of wonder and awe: a heavy silence; tremendous grey blue walls heaving out of the shale all around us. Yet after a moment spent absorbing this eerie grandeur, I realised there was after all a soundtrack to this space: the dripping of water, the chink of sliding slate and beneath it all a deep hum; the hydroelectric plant that lives in the mountain; the sonic combination is unlike any other I have experienced.

Tunnel to California
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The route we had come to climb goes by the name of Central Sadness. A striking line that dominates the main wall – ascending over 200ft to the scree above. Kenny was to lead both pitches, of which I was glad – this climb was way beyond my capabilities. Without any fuss or pleasantries Kenny raced up the first pitch, dispensing it with an aplomb verging on disdain such was his efficiency. Soon I was forcing my way up the steep blank wall towards his belay – thankful of the rope above – wondering how he’d managed the protection-less wall and strenuous, bold climbing. On reaching Kenny, there was a quick exchange of gear, a mad grin from him; and he was away again, surging up the beautiful, silver wall above.

It is here that I reach the crux of my story. Kenny reached the top and I stepped out onto the head wall of the climb. Illuminated by the evening sun and with the tough first pitch out of the way, my body relaxed into its familiar rhythms and I began to pay attention to the rock…

I am climbing a perfect finger crack that cleaves the clean face of Slate like a bolt of lightning, the effort involved is intense yet somehow effortless, the rock seeming to envelop my hands. I feel a confluence of complex emotions: a fluidity and fire courses from the rock into my body, I feel as if bones and rock may fuse and become one. There is no space in my mind for thought only this stone alongside me; and movement, upwards, outwards, inwards. I am in direct contact with 500 million years of alchemy and I know in that moment, that this rock is not a dull, lifeless inanimate material. It has a life, buried far beyond our logical everyday comprehension but well within the ken of our veiled, intuitive selves.

Slate 1
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The way forward

For me the fact that there is a world beyond our normal modes of communication is a given – it is non negotiable. I know this because I have felt it. Not through thought or intellect but with my whole being. How therefore do we use this knowledge of unity to engender a better world for ourselves, those around us and dare I say it the ‘environment’?

I can only really answer this with any level of accuracy and conviction from a personal standpoint. I need to spend more time outside, not just while ‘doing’ extreme sports, but in all aspects of my life. Working, cooking, eating, sleeping and waking – it is only through being immersed in the outside world in my daily activity that I will gain more knowledge and vision. It is that simple for me. That is not to say I won’t read books or watch films; have long conversations and arguments; use my smartphone or digital camera. I have a family and am too embroiled in the intricacies of modern life to become an ascetic – yet we all have a choice on how to spend our time and energy. We can do both – it takes control, willpower and commitment but I believe it is possible to reconcile the old world and the new – indeed perhaps we can take a step forward, creating untold stories and new possibilities for ourselves.

On a national and global scale this seems a massively complex question. As I write this we are fast approaching a vote that will influence the future of this country. As I read this I imagine we will know the answer to who has won that vote!* We all have our political hopes and nightmares – without meaning to be cynical, will the outcome make any difference? Governments come and go, policies change, agreements are ratified then cancelled….I’m not proposing that we should not vote and that we should not fight – we must. Yet we should also focus on that which feeds us as individuals and remember the timescales implicit in this world in which we live. By engaging with deep time and the well spring of energy that exists therein I hope we will find ways to make this world of ours work.

I feel I know what I must do. But having the courage and conviction to fulfil these actions is tough when living in a society that – on the surface at least – seems opposed to alternative ways of being, particularly when working from a logical, rational viewpoint. But therein lies the key for me. I will not be logical. I will not be rational. I will not be bound by the self-imposed tenets of our language and technology. I will find my own truth. Within and without. That knowledge will be accrued over long periods of time: spent listening, feeling and then acting. I will live as the animal that I am; stripping away layers of culture and convention that occlude any real sense of self.

I know what I must do.

He felt the world was telling him to stop looking, for then he would see beyond; to stop thinking, for then he would comprehend; to stop trying to make sense of things, for then he would find the truest grace. – Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods.

* Oliver was speaking the day after the UK’s 2017 General Election.

Find out more

Greg Child‘s essay, Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher (1983), appears in Mirrors in the Cliffs (edited by Jim Perrin) published by Diadem (out of print). It is also available in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child (1993), published by Mountaineers Books.

The passage by Ithell Colquhoun is from his book (1957), The Living Stones, published by Peter Owen.

Alan Garner‘s book (1996), Strandloper, originally published by Harvill Press, is available from Penguin.

Suzi Gablik‘s book (1991), The Reenchantment of Art, was published by Thames & Hudson (out of print).

Narendra‘s essay (2013), Dispatches from Basta, is published in Dark Mountain Issue 4.

The passage by Ben Okri is from his book (1996), Astonishing the Gods, as originally published by Phoenix, and is available from Head of Zeus.

Questioning technology? Space for creative thinking... 

"Picking up on Suzi Gablik's observation, how do you feel your own experience of technology disrupts your view of what is real? How, instead, can technology act as your 'conveyance to ... distant situations' and direct experience, as Greg Child suggests?"

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

 

Óshlið: River Mouth \\ Slope

In this reflective and evocative multimedia post, filmmakers Sarah Thomas and Jon Randall hold a conversation around the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their project exploring Óshlið, an abandoned road in Iceland. As you listen in on their conversation, you can see a slideshow of images they’ve brought back from this unique and changing place – and then watch a preview of their film.

Our film represents a journey along Óshlið, an abandoned coastal road which is considered to be one of the most dangerous, and beautiful, in Iceland. Following the construction of a mountain tunnel in 2010, the road was closed and is now in the process of being rapidly reclaimed by both the mountain and the sea. The film delves into the stories of this road and its relationships with the people who maintained, traveled and died upon Óshlið. Through these voices, it reflects upon a post-human landscape and the nature of mortality.

The title embodies the topographical and compound nature of this film. Óshlið is an Icelandic word comprised of ós (river mouth) and hlið (slope). Óshlið is both the name of the road, and the place – from which it came and to which it will return.

To listen to our conversation, choose the ‘Listen in browser’ option rather than SoundCloud, so you can view the accompanying slideshow below.

 

Photographs: All colour photos © 2017 Sarah Thomas & Jon Randall; all b&w photos © Vegagerðin (The Icelandic Road Administration)

Find out more

For more information on the project, news and updates, please visit www.rivermouthslope.net and follow @OshlidFilm on Twitter.
Questioning Loss? Space for creative thinking...

"What do our experiences of loss - of place, objects, relationships - mean for our understanding of environmental or climate change? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

A Questionable Shore

In my post Interstice #1, I quoted naturalist and writer Tim Dee’s account of Odin’s mythic ravens, Hugin and Munin. So I was delighted to see Richard Alwyn’s new and poetic film of the man himself as he walks off into the edgelands of the Wash, in search of a pure wind. Here is my review of the film, Into the Wind, which was shown on BBC Four on 12th April. You can catch it on BBC iPlayer, where it will be for the next couple of weeks.

In every direction, washed greens, browns and orange-browns stretch into the distance, flattened beneath skies of grey becoming blue. The camera seems to spend half its time on that view and half on the man’s face watching the view: pink from the cold wind, rounded and soft where the land and sky are flat and severe, it’s a face alive with questions of a place that seems without obvious answers. Tim Dee, naturalist, radio producer and writer, has eyes that seem to pierce the distances beyond the wide horizon. He’s trying to see the thing he’s come to listen to: an unmediated, uninterrupted, thousand-mile wind.

Dee spots his destination, a long mound in the distance. The only thing of height for miles around, “it’s the place I imagine capturing a pure Wash wind”. He strides off, satchel of recording equipment at his hip, covered microphone held aloft; he refers to it as his equivalent of a pilgrim’s staff or dowser’s rod, but it more resembles a giant, furry grey caterpillar on a stick, or an outsize candyfloss gone badly wrong. The large headphones suggest that his ears must be the only part of his head that might even remember warmth. As he walks, the camera following a little shakily, we see he’s moving along a bank through the flatlands, passing above deep channels of water that cut through the grasses. The only trees are bare and strung out in thin lines, parceling off squares of naked brown soil: fields where there had been sea.

Tim Dee, Into the Wind
Photograph: Richard Alwyn / Wingspan Productions © 2017
http://www.wingspanproductions.co.uk

52.9167°N, 0.2500°E: The Wash, reclaimed sea-land between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. A “questionable shore,” as Dee names this place he first encountered as a teenager: “a great place to meet the sea, because the sea was permanently meeting the land and both seemed unresolved about the status of each.” It’s a constructed, “brokered edge, made by banks and reclamation.” The camera frames the curve of the bank and its watery ditch, the angle where it turns a sharp corner of yellowing grasses and heads off into the distance. On a mission to contain, to control.

Wild track

Walking in such a wide land, usually alone, he says that what draws him on “is a sort of oblivion … a kind of dissolve into a landscape. It takes the bigness of ‘self’ and dissolves it.” Now, he is silhouetted in the middle distance, facing down a soft slope into the emptiness, binoculars held up to his eyes, microphone slung behind him, pointing up to the sky.

Dee, used to striving for the near elimination of wind noise in the voice recordings he produces for radio – the “wild track” that distracts and subtracts from the desired audio focus – is now on a quest to capture the sound of the wind itself, on its own terms: “wind as wind might sound in its own ear.” But it’s hard to capture because, “in some ways, it doesn’t exist as a sound. What we think of as the wind is the sound that the wind is making as it rubs over the surface of the world”. We hear grasses, sea, trees, not the moving air itself.

He imagines a future life – his retirement life, but perhaps also one beyond that finite horizon? – of listening only to his tapes of the wind, the human voices all forgotten, when “it’s the turn of the really big voices to have their say.” Wild track is the thing.

Wind stories

Returning to the here and now and the visual, lying on the slope of the bank, he watches the infinite, uncontainable sky. “This is what the surface of the Earth sees. The wind is visible, the way the clouds are moving.”

And then, alarmingly, we’re into his memory of the time “when the wind first came to call on me.” Again, when he was a teenager, but this time cycling the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, delivering the evening newspapers. The only other person in sight, a stranger walking ahead of him through the dark November afternoon, looked back once to catch the approaching boy’s eye – and then stepped up onto the parapet and into the wind tunnel of the gorge, to be held up by nothing for just one instant. Dee catches our eye briefly too as he tells us this and, a moment later, we see a bird of prey hovering above the field behind him, hunting. “But because he wasn’t a bird, he didn’t stop.” We’re left to wonder what the approaching Earth saw then, looking up as a man proved to the air that he wasn’t a bird. It was a cruel sight to force onto a teenager on his afternoon paper round.

“But that was a wind story to me, because it proved to me in some ways that the air, as pushed through that gorge, was a place simply that we couldn’t go, that wasn’t ours for entering or mastering in any way. And yet the birds were falling and rising in that wind. It’s their place, not ours.”

There are deep furrows in the marsh as he progresses from the fresh to the salt, walking now beneath the level of the manmade bank, into mud and marshgrass and the footprints of geese. The mound is close, standing like an ancient long barrow, but Dee pierces the myth even as he makes it, revealing this as a failed freshwater reservoir. But perhaps, I think, that will stand just as long as our other relics have done – and then remember that the sea probably has other plans, even for a place that’s been taking land from it for centuries. A storm light hovers over the horizon.

Where everything is kept in motion

Now he is climbing at last onto the mound, the highest ground for as far as we can see. Coming up behind, the camera frames him against the reveal of a vast plain of mud. Brown and grey shoreland almost up to the horizon, broken by silver threads of water reaching out to a sea that is still impossibly far off. After the wind stories and the brokered edge, this is landscape from a Tarkovsky film: a zone of suspended reality, flickering back and forth between something clearly natural and something somehow other. A highly questionable shore.

“I feel closer to the wind than I’ve been before.” He’s holding his wind-dowser’s rod ahead of him. “You feel it coming straight at you, from who knows where, out to the north.”

Now we hear it too, what he came for: a pure wind, washed off the sea, fresh from its own creation and untouched by the vast distances it’s travelled already. “Like it hasn’t stopped for anything yet. I’m probably the first thing this wind has hit for about a thousand miles, and it’s telling me so.”

At this point he chuckles into the cold, fast air and I wonder what else he’s hearing in it. He looks like he’s left the ordinary world for a moment. “I don’t hear the sea and I don’t hear the grass, and the mud is quiet. It’s a bird wind; when you are in it and it’s blowing you around, but it’s not sounding like anything other than itself. Which is what you are, as well. I sometimes think if the dead go anywhere, they go into the wind. That’s where everything that was is kept in motion, blowing and going. All the birds and all the people.”

Tim Dee, Beyond the Mound
Photograph: Richard Alwyn / Wingspan Productions © 2017
http://www.wingspanproductions.co.uk

The wind rumbles on. He stands there a moment longer, then descends to step a few footprints into the mud and kneel with his pilgrim’s staff before him. His clothes and headphone-headdress as dark as the mud, his hair as grey as the sky, he is an ancient seer, a discerner of wild track, reaching forward to hear beyond the horizons.

Find out more:

Into the wind – a film by Richard Alwyn and Tim Dee, was shown on BBC Four on 12th April 2017 and available on iPlayer until 10th May (and no doubt will become a staple repeat). It was made by Wingspan Productions.

You can refresh your memory of Tim Dee’s writing on Hugin and Munin at Interstice #1: An Excursion Between Culturing and Climate Change

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Returning to a theme of ‘Wicked Cultures’ for ‘Wicked Problems’, I give my personal review of John Gardner’s Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print