Researching the topics of grief and hope under climate change, writer and photographer Mike Hembury read Deborah Tomkins’ ClimateCultures post on how these topics feature in her work and that of fellow Bristol Climate Writers. Here, Mike shares a poem he wrote in response to his reading and his own experience. We’re proud to feature his moving contribution, and other creative responses, as part of the conversation that ClimateCultures aims to nurture and stimulate.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
Sweeping the Dust
For so long I have been Searching, Sweeping the dust, Hurting, Hurting, big time, Living alone With you In a world Of wounds.
People Are not who they were, I am not Who I was.
And all the while Blaming Who else but myself, Feeling shame And bitter failure While sweeping the dust.
I’m homesick. But I’m still here.
I understand That I am grieving That we are grieving, As our landscapes Lose their meaning: “Is this how you feel?” Yes.
We are sick now. Sick of watching The world crumble and burn Sick of Sweeping the dust, Witnessing The reduction Of our more-than-human Earth To the smoke and ash, Algae and pollution Of human dominion. Filthy, defiled By greed and lucre.
However I want you to know I am not Submitting to despair.
I am sweeping the dust.
There is much grief work To be done. Much grief work To share. And much of it Will be hard. But we have More than enough To go around.
We are allowed to feel now We give ourselves permission To grieve.
Our depths Are well-springs. Our tears Balm, Co-elixir.
We share the dust, our wounds, Our denuded landscapes And each sharing, A seed: Resilience. Our job now Not hope But becoming hope For worlds to come.
Close the valve Hold the window open Plant the seed Sweep the dust.
Grief and hope
This poem came to me while I was researching the topic of ‘climate grief’ for a longer magazine piece. I must say that it is a recurrent theme for me. I am a great believer in action, and the need to stay motivated, but I also think that it is vitally important for us to feel the immense sadness and loss that is increasingly part of our common experience on our wonderful planet. Despair can be immensely debilitating but, to be honest, I think it is also part of a broader awakening.
I was very heartened to discover a number of very moving articles, particularly:
Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene– Understanding Ecological Grief, by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo
How to keep going, by Emily Johnston
The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, by Peter Kalmus
The Road to Resilience, from the American Psychological Association.
Explicit thanks are due here to Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo, who I hope will forgive me for turning their essay into something of a collage.
Whilst looking into the topic of grief I have also been questioning the role of hope, and am indebted to Emily Johnston’s take on this, which is that our own hope, or lack of it, is almost irrelevant right now. Our job is to be hope, to embody hope, for future generations. A very powerful message.
I have also just discovered Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, which has been inspirational, to put it mildly. Rebecca distinguishes between the false hope of “it will all turn out alright in the end”, and the need to cast ourselves into the uncertainty of action:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
I was also greatly impressed by Carolyn Baker, in her interview with the Canadian Ecopsychology Network. She stresses the importance of accepting grief, of actually feeling grief, as a precursor to moving forward, and to feeling joy. She essentially posits that to feel grief is far better than its alternative, which is to remain in denial, and feel nothing.
My wild emotional journey this week into the depths of climate grief and the associated search for reasons to continue was rounded off in the most succinct way possible by Greta Thunberg’s speech to a demonstration at COP24 in Katowice. She managed to sum up my thinking in two sentences:
“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere, so instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then and only then, hope will come.”
Find out more
Mike Hembury is a freelance writer, musician and photographer who writes a regular column on climate change and related themes for online literary and political magazine The Wild Word, as well as journalistic pieces for international publications. His first novel, New Clone City, was published this year, and he had a piece included in Dark Mountain’s recent TERRA edition. You can find out more about Mike’s work at his Directory page and at mikehembury.org.
You can explore the various sources that Mike mentions:
And of course, Deborah Tomkins’ post Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change — where she brings in her own experience as a writer and that of fellow members of Bristol Climate Writers — is here at ClimateCultures. The post is illustrated by artist Perrin Ireland’s images from her graphic story Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming.
Filmmaker James Murray-White returns to ClimateCultures with his account of taking part in Small Earth at Snape in Suffolk, earlier in November. At this special conference, psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
“Get the tools you need to understand where we’re currently living: in the belly of the beast.” – Alastair McIntosh
The starting question for this powerful converging and sharing of minds in the wonderful location of Snape was “Can we return to living within the terms of Earth’s ecosphere?” And this question was minutely probed and dissected over an intense, sometimes gruelling, sometimes uplifting and ultimately rejuvenating four days. The choice of location was sublime: a place I know well and often regret I don’t spend enough time in — a place of water, reed beds, and the wonderful vast skies with multiple colour gradations to dream within; absolutely a setting to contemplate the miracle of our time on the blue dot of our earth.
A miracle indeed, but a miracle that our human species has been bent on destroying — and this convergence was aimed at therapists and psychologists with a passion to serve the planet through their work.
Here was a chance to listen, to talk and share, and also to grieve for the pain of the world.
Reclaiming what gives life
To start each day, psychotherapist James Barratt offered us all the opportunity to share into a social dreaming matrix: a space to hear and reflect upon each others’ dreams. It feels particularly useful when a group has come together for a few days and is going through a process together, on any level. I found this powerful group process took us very deeply into our collective unconscious, and it was a strong learning to hear dreams and then have the chance to collectively unpick what they might be saying: finding threads and applying our experience to them.
As one of the few non-therapists attending, I dipped deeply in and needed some time to dip out. I found that it touched into lots of the work I’ve done since an MSc in Human Ecology at the (sadly now defunct) Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh some years back, and it was an honour to connect again with Gaelic shaman of the CHE and other institutions, Dr Alastair McIntosh — a keynote speaker.
McIntosh’s lecture on Saturday, Reclaiming what gives life, was full of his pain and passion for the human community: quoting psalms, Shakespeare, Gaelic poets; taking us with him on his journey across the island of Harris, and into the dark heart of the world of advertising, particularly the pernicious evil of the tobacco industry.
Drawing on his comments in the film Consumed, which opened the conference, he asked of us to call back the soul, by “looking at the nature of the belly of the beast”, that “the place of our calling is in the belly of the beast — don’t let it take us out of our natural joy.” The way forward is to “open up to that marginal realm where I suggest a healing will come.”
A highlight of the conference was meeting with naturalist Chris Packham, who shared ways to achieve a different way of thinking about our place within the ecosphere. Ultimately, he said, if we truly tap into our human capacity for altruism, restraint and care, we might survive: “once we recognise that we are just a keystone in our own ecological microsystems.”
Following on from this in a public lecture to four hundred of us, and accompanied by his dog Scratchy, Packham laid it on the line for humanity: “Summon the bravery. Look at it cold hard and in the face. It is an ecological apocalypse. We must act now.”
Other notable speakers included Jungian analyst Andrew Fellows; researcher, writer and transformational coach Mick Collins; novelist Melissa Harrison; and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust.
Making the Transformocene
Andrew Fellows started by playing us a song of the Earth from a Siberian shaman: calling us into the Earth and reminding us of our belonging. Combining hard fact — that human activity is adding heat to the atmosphere at the rate of four Hiroshima explosions every second, and that two years ago the global human call for air-conditioning overtook our call for heating — with an analyst’s perspective, he said: “We hang (in this ecosphere) by a thin thread, and that thread is man’s psyche”. Fellows spoke passionately to our failings and our human frailties — preparing us perhaps for McIntosh’s attempts to lift us spiritually.
Mick Collins spoke to what he names the Transformocene: that age which transforms and changes within the recent and the new. This draws upon the very necessary shadow work that humanity must undertake, which Collins calls us “to do with depth.” Naming himself a ‘wounded transformer’, speaking with great passion and, as described in conversations afterwards, coming from a rich discursive life of facing inner crises and awakenings, he is emerging as an important figure in our movement for change.
I relished coming back to creativity with writer Melissa Harrison, whose conviction she says comes from being part of “the last generation that was able to play and be outside.” That reminded me of David Bond’s 2013 documentary Project Wild Thing, which uses the diminishing statistic, from his mother’s 80% spent outdoors, his own 50% outdoors playtime, to his inner-City kids’ mere 3%, as the starting place to advertise the joys of being outdoors within the world. I looked after a friend’s kids the night after returning from Small Earth and was shocked that they were up at 6 am, devouring screen time and off in distant virtual lands of warfare and commodity.
Melissa Harrison inspired too: “I can hold both hope and pain at the loss of species and changing climate, but it’s painful. Why not try to hold hope?” She suggested that we all adopt our own home patches to protect and to closely observe, if we are not already in this act of service: “this sense of responsibility implies that we are the main players in this. Keep it cared for and vibrant.”
Gaining a calm presence on small Earth
Mary-Jane Rust gave an exemplary presentation that, for me, rounded off the few days and was grounded in doing, reflection and practice. With examples of eco-psychotherapy projects that re-engage folk with the earth, she spoke of “attending to our rage” at what we see and hear in terms of destruction and change and, with this, “becoming aware of our own emotional centre we gain a calm.” That presence, she suggests, “delivers us the present moment, and enables an attitude of reverence, humility, and an apology — to the Earth”.
These talks were followed by a range of follow-up afternoon workshops. I particularly loved the chance to forage for leaves, sticks and objects outside, and return to put them all together within an art-making workshop facilitated by Marion Green.
And I appreciated the buildings and cultural-creative environment of the Maltings, coming back to life after the end of their industrial use. The stunning beauty of Snape: the reeds, absorbing CO2, the River Alde flowing up to the buildings, and the vast East Anglian sky, all reminded me that we live in a beautiful world. It’s up to each and every one of us to deeply engage, live a life in full service to the ecosphere, as well as to the human population and all other species that inhabit it too.
My thanks to the organisers, presenters, and fellow participants of Small Earth for this opportunity. May these few days enable us to continue to serve, and to quote Mick Collins, to live a life “in discipleship to nature, and to service.”
Find out more
James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entry and sky-larking.co.uk.
The Small Earth conference took place at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, from 8th to 11th November 2018. It was organised by CONFER, an independent organisation established by psychotherapists in 1998 to provide innovative, challenging and inspiring continuing educational events for psychotherapists, psychologists and other mental health workers. You can find the full programme at their site.
Mick Collins’ idea of the Transformocene is explored in his book, The Visionary Spirit, and in this interview for Permaculture: “We’re living in a time when we’re standing at the threshold of the Anthropocene – an era where humans have had an impact on the Earth’s eco-systems. In this way, the Anthropocene reflects the Spirit of the Times (zeitgeist), which highlights the degrading ways we’ve been treating the planet. In contrast, the idea for the Transformocene Age came to me after reading Carl Jung’s Red Book, which chronicles his meetings with the Spirit of the Depths. Therefore, the emergence of the Transformocene is cultivated via a deeper connection to the wisdom from the collective unconscious and through our encounters with the sacred.”
I’m kicking off a new series — and a new section on our website — to explore Members’ responses to film and audio pieces that open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change. ClimateCultures addresses these topics and our evolving nature-culture relationships within the Anthropocene era, and perhaps a focus on these two mediums, sound and vision, can use our personal sense of change, of movement in space, time, consciousness and emotion, to help make these issues more accessible. In this post, I’ve chosen two pieces that touch on seemingly very different spheres of interest for me — how human and non-human animals live, and how processes of change shape our coasts and our awareness of them; but in talking about them, I find they both provoke connecting thoughts on time and tide in our relationship with the more-than-human.
In director Alex Lockwood’s beautifully thoughtful and moving film, 73 Cows (which I discovered via Aeonin October 2018), farmers Jay and Katja Wilde share their journey from raising beef cattle to animal-free farming — and the journey of the animals themselves. It’s an insightful encounter with the realities of one couple’s life on the land, living in close relationship with animals. I find it helpful because of its intensely personal focus cuts through some of the more familiar contest between opinions and the wielding of facts and figures in the debate on how we farm and feed ourselves and what ‘animal rights’ mean. It’s not trying to persuade me of anything, other than of our common ability to feel the weight of our own and others’ circumstances, and the tasks of questioning those circumstances and finding our own better way through them.
As the post at Aeon puts it: “Coming to recognise them as individuals with rich inner lives rather than just ‘units of production’, Wilde eventually found the emotional burden of sending his cattle to the abattoir too crushing to bear … Melancholic yet stirring and gently hopeful, this short documentary … deftly traces the complexities of Wilde’s decisionmaking process. In doing so, it reaches far beyond the English countryside, asking viewers to reckon with the moral intricacies of eating animals.”
Whatever your views on the topics before or after watching the film, I imagine you will find something moving in the experience it brings you.
Artist Marcus Vergette has created a series of Time and Tide Bells around the UK, each marking the local high tide. “The rise of the water at high tide moves the clapper to strike the bell. Played by the movement of the waves, the bell creates a varying pattern. As sea level rises the periods of bell strikes become more frequent, and as submerged in the rising water the pitch will vary.”
Five bells have been placed so far, at Appledore (Devon, England), Aberdyfi (Wales), Bosta (Isle of Lewis, Scotland), Trinity Buoy Wharf (London), and Cemaes (Anglesey, Wales). Marcus says of Appledore (where the first bell was installed in May 2009), “this estuary has some of the highest tides in Europe. Here they build ships, fish, trade to the Americas and to Russia. An important and historic port.” Each bell is inscribed with a text chosen by the local community. At Appledore, this is:
In thrall to the moon
rocked by her ebb and flow
I sing of swells beneath the stars
black waves at the storms height
new ships’ rhythmic passage west
seabirds in the dancing wake
all who set sail in sorrow or joy
and all who sleep below
So far, I’ve only visited the Trinity Wharf bell but I hope to experience each one. Trinity Wharf is where lighthouse keepers were trained and navigation buoys were made, so the resonance of its Time and Tide Bell with thoughts of future coastal hazards and adaptations is strong. But I chose the audio clip from Appledore instead because its soundtrack — the bell ringing against the waves — immediately said something to me of a place I’ve not yet been to (though I lived in Devon for a while) but which — like everywhere else — is undergoing change partly as a result of my actions, my existence. And the quiet, contrasting sounds of nature — the waves — and its cultural counterpart — the bell — captures a short moment within a changing relationship.
Time and tide in the more-than-human
Is there a connection between my two selections? Not at first sight maybe, and I certainly didn’t select them with any conscious link in mind. But the same mind chose them … so now I think of the slow-yet-rapid timescales of change on our coasts and of our experience of them, over our lifetimes and in those sudden, dramatic coastal shifts of storm and flood and collapse; and now I think of the ‘bigger picture’ and the longer story behind the Wildes’ story, the currents of change in how humans have understood other animals throughout our history, how each of us chooses to live with the domesticated ones and the wild ones now. And I remember that change is possible, natural, necessary: sometimes it comes one person at a time, sometimes in the movement of the herd. And, as we meet or make these changes, or as we don’t, still the bell chimes. What do we miss when we don’t hear its notes under the noise of everyday life?
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
William Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar (1599)
“But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown. Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down. I hear those voices that will not be drowned Calling, there is no stone In earth’s thickness to make a home That you can build with and remain alone.”
Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes (1945, libretto by Montagu Slater).
And, then, after I’d written this post, reading a final BBC piece for the notes below, I discover that “Marcus came up with the Time and Tide idea following the foot-and-mouth outbreaks in 2001. Marcus and his wife Sally lost their stock of Angus cattle and Devon Closewool sheep in the epidemic and they were unable to leave their farm at Highampton because of the restrictions. Marcus’ permanent reminder to the awful events of 2001 is a bell, which hangs beside the village hall in Highampton.”
Find out more
I discovered Alex Lockwood’s award-winning 73 Cows through Aeon (October 2018) and posted it to our Views from Elsewhere page before I realised that my response to this film needed a different space — and then that this space might be useful for others to share their film and audio discoveries. Do check out our Gifts of Sound and Vision page as more offerings appear.
You can discover more of Lockwood’s films at … Lockwood Film. A review at film site Short of the Week says that 73 Cows “captures beautifully a crucible for Jay and Katja, and better than almost any documentary I’ve seen captures the moral weight of its action. Jay is torn by the logistical complexity of the farm’s change, and keenly feels the weight of obligation to his dead father from whom he inherited the farm. Yet, nobly, he is steadfast in his conviction. Agree or disagree with the ethics of animal husbandry, what else but courage do you call it when folks risk everything and defy societal norms to do what they feel is right?”
In an interview for The New Current website ahead of the Raindance Film Festival 2018 (where the film premiered), Alex said “I hope that when people watch 73 Cows that they really relate to Jay and the struggles that a lot of farmers must be secretly facing. Jay managed to completely turn his life around and do what he felt was right despite losing money, turning his back on his tradition and also going against the grain within his local community. So ultimately I see it as a hopeful film. Maybe people will watch it and feel like they can get over their own personal demons in the same way that Jay has gotten over his. That would be nice.”
Sculptor Marcus Vergette discusses his project at Time and Tide Bell as “a permanent installation of bells around the UK rung by the sea at high tide. The Time and Tide Bell has been permanently sited at the high tide mark in five locations.” A new one is planned for Mablethorpe (Lincolnshire, England), with a description at the website of Transition Town Louth (which also has other coastal change related arts, Across the Seas).
In a short piece for the BBC website (3/9/10) for the creation of the Trinity Wharf bell, Marcus says “The Time and Tide Bell creates, celebrates and reinforces connections between our history and our environment … Here at Trinity Buoy Ward in Leamouth, it will serve as a powerful marker of sea level rise at the very heart of our maritime history.”
Writer and artist Salli Hipkiss returns to ClimateCultures with a second post on her novel, The Riddle of the Trees.In My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis,Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write her creative work on climate change. Here, she shares an extract from the manuscript, and looks further into the development of character and meaning and her inspiration to write this novel for the 'We Generation'.
approximate Reading Time: 10minutes
The Riddle of the Trees
Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum.She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction.She knew the way well.Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.
The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar.A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack.While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit.Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro.Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.
Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest?A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?
Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study?Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them?Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures?
Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds?Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years?
Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another.She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.
Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong.Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed.She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be.Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency.A frailty.A ghostliness even.
Suddenly she knew what this was.It was what Gramps had feared the most.This was Disintegration.
Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story.After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book.I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Treesit feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story.
In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:
‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’
This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story.It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues.This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke.
I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character.In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.
A riddle for the many
At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest.In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures.At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed.The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees.However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream.As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution.
Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms.His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous.But he is not evil.
This distinction was important to me.When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created.My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated.Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before.For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story.
The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.
Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth……I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery.However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems.Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community – including globally – that lies at the heart of the book.
Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today.Reflecting on his famous ending line “…I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own.
Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways.The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’.They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence.This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.
In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey.She writes:
“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’.But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”
In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony.To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole.Blackie continues:
“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”
In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:
“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”
For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way.
Find out more
Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. You can explore Salli’s creative work as artist, writer and educator via her ClimateCultures profile page and her website link there. And Salli’s recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake.
Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003.
The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.
Michael McCarthy’sThe Moth Snowstorm – one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton, and you can read an extract at their site.
Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, Equus, explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of a society where the human ability to feel true passion is dulled, the human relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature. When I rediscovered it in my local Oxfam bookshop, I knew I'd revisit it and pass it on as one of the works of fiction that has had an impact on me. Equus goes to ClimateCultures Member Ruth Garde for her recent contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and here is my review.
“One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The world keeps sending psychiatrist Martin Dysart customers: the children he’s come to see as being damaged by that world, it judges them as damaging to it. “One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”
Introducing Equus, Peter Shaffer mentions the risks in reproducing a written text. Not simply that the play obviously consists of so much more than the words: the gestures, the lighting and the ‘look of the thing’; but that the printed book “can imprison a play in one particular stylisation … Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.” Dysart seems to feel the same way about his own work: rendering the living spirit back into inoffensive flesh and bones.
A play that says more than once that “extremity is the point” begins with crisis. Magistrate Hester Salomon pleads with Dysart to take personal charge of a 17 year old boy who has committed a crime her colleagues want to punish him severely for.
DYSART: Why? What’s he done? Dosed some little girl’s Pepsi with Spanish Fly? What could possible throw your bench into two-hour convulsions?
HESTHER: He blinded six horses with a metal spike.
[A long pause.]
Shaffer said that he’d been driving past a stables one day when a friend told him about just a crime, which he’d heard about at a dinner party. “He knew only one detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute – but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.” That real crime became the trigger for a play portraying a world which has so destroyed people’s ability to feel passion that it leads to incomprehensible acts.
Alan’s distraught mother, Dora, resists any implication that the blinding was somehow the result of the boy’s upbringing, of society.
DORA: We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. My husband is a good man … He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy … No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself … If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all our things added up.
Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables where Alan worked at weekends, insists the boy was a model employee – right up to the sudden, vicious attacks. “No, he was bloody good. He’d spend hours with the horses cleaning and grooming them, way over the call of duty. I thought he was a real find.” This in spite of Alan’s one oddity; apparently, he never rode the horses, although that perk was the reason most stablehands took the job. Asked why Alan should be so different, Dalton replies: “Are you asking me? He’s a loony, isn’t he?”
The indispensable, murderous God
Hester wants Dysart to bring back the ‘normal’ boy within the tormented teenager. But the psychiatrist finds himself resisting more and more the call of the tame.
DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God.”
Dysart – middle-aged, working at a relentless conveyor belt rolling cases in through one door and out through another – is, of course, in the midst of his own existential crisis. Hester, horrified by his despairing self-awareness, tries constantly to coax him back into seeing the real benefits he delivers, every day, to the children he cares for. We begin to wonder who she thinks will be the saving of whom: Dysart of Alan Strang, troubled and troubling youth; or Alan of Martin Dysart, world-weary psychiatrist careering down into his own annihilation?
Dysart, however, is having none of it. He’s haunted by a dream that Alan’s arrival has triggered, and for which his own fascination with the ‘civilisation’ of Ancient Greece provides the setting.
DYSART: That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos … It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is … I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse … And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip.
Alan, meanwhile, is running rings round him, deflecting all attempts to uncover the dark reason for blinding the horses he’d cared for. The psychiatrist interviews Alan’s parents, picking apart their differences – class, temperament, religion. He wait, impassive at first as Alan bombards him with constant singing of adverts he’s learned from the forbidden TV, then angrily as the boy makes deep incisions of his own, with barbed comments about the doctor’s childless and sterile home-life.
Religion would seem to be at centre and bottom of Equus: Dysart’s fascination with the primitive rites of ancient Greece, his revulsion at the Normal deity of modern living; Dora Strang’s Christian faith and tutoring of her son against the wishes of her equally devout atheist husband. Gods exert their powerful pull as mortals continually recreate them.
But it’s passion that’s the real heart – buried and beating in in Alan, exposed and dying in Dysart. ‘Passion’ is ‘suffering’ – the Passion of Christ – but, derived originally from the Latin pati ‘to endure, undergo, experience’, later came also to mean ‘strong emotion, desire.’ Experience, suffering, desire – and all the animist, conventional and secular religious forms that evoke, console, contain, inhibit and incite these in their different ways. Alan has imbibed and rejected something of his mother’s religious faith and his father’s ‘rigorously self-improving’ one. And society’s consumerist religion is proselytised through the TV he’s supposedly banned from watching and reinforced by the customers at the electrical shop where he works during the week; selling brand names to satisfy the already well-equipped citizens of techno(theo)logical society.
Alan’s father preaches on TV’s corrosive effects:
FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life – like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. … Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don’t want, just to bolster up the economic system.
From all this, and from vivid if dreamlike childhood memories, Alan has created his own vital, ritualistic worship of his secret God, Equus: kneeling to the picture of a horse framed above his bed; slowly brushing the horses in the stables; secretly taking night-time rides on them. Riding is a worship to be offered raw and alone under the darkness of night, in unwatched fields of mists and nettles: human and animal both naked. Never in the genteel daytime rituals of ‘indulging in equitation’: animal harnessed, humiliated, un-natured; human civilised, ‘mastering’ nature.
At last, exhausted, he reveals his secret, miming for the psychiatrist how two beasts become one and ride out “against them all … My foes and His .. The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe! … The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!”
DYSART: Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that… I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity … Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats … such a fantastic surrender to the primitive. And I use the word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ … I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!
Extremity’s the point
Although Alan has abstracted his passion into a mystical vision of Horse-become-God as enthralling as the God-become-Man and Man-become-God visions of Christian and Industrial religions, what Dysart sees at its core is a primal relationship between human and more-than-human. Far-removed from “the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!” He dissects the inhuman condition we’ve inherited, become (de)naturalised into, and recreate with every Normal thought and action and speech. Dysart knows he cannot keep Alan free from it. It’s what Dysart also wishes to free himself from – and feels insanely jealous of the boy for succeeding, if only temporarily and at a terrible cost to human and animal. More terrible, though, than the ‘proper’ relationship of humans and animals?
DYSART: I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field … and give him Normal places for his ecstasy – multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he’ll never touch hide again!
Alan has confronted the world of fake reality and discovered his own sexual being at exactly the same time he realises the sexless world on offer in the desolating Normal of his parents’ lives, Dysart’s life and the lives of everyone he sees around him when the young woman he works with at the stables takes him on his first date, to “a skin flick over in Winchester! I’ve never seen one, have you? … All those heavy Swedes, panting at each other! What do you say?”
ALAN: The whole place was full of men. Jill was the only girl … All round me they were all looking. All the men – staring like they were in church. Like they were all a congregation.
Equus is a jealous God. Alan and Jill are discovered in the cinema by his father – revealed as a hypocritical consumer of what he’s brought his son up to beware. When Jill leads him away from the horrifying confrontation and takes him, inevitably, to the place they both know and can be alone together, she’s unaware that the stables are not just her secret place for sex but also his Holy of Holies. Naked with her, Alan sees his God watching through the eyes of the six horses. Equus sees all and punishes transgression, leaving Alan humiliated and, unable to act on his desire for Jill. Forcing her away, when Alan’s alone again with Equus, in despair he takes revenge on His all-seeing God’s earthly forms.
Shaffer’s intense fascination on hearing the brief, almost completely decontextualised account of the real-life horse-blinding was with a crime that “lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.” Meaning that we must all look for our own, incoherent, ones. But remember the one small detail that Shaffer did have: a crime his friend “had heard about recently at a dinner party in London.” More than likely a very ‘Normal’ dinner party, at which conversation, with the odd bit of spine-chilling news and thrilling gossip, took place over plates of animal flesh of one kind or another – although certainly not horse.
A thousand local gods
Returned to the Normal world – where “animals are treated properly” in that way rather than blinded with their own hoof picks – once Dysart has delivered on his promise to “heal the rash on his body … erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes,” Alan “may even come to find sex funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! … Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
But, he tells the sleeping boy, “He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old nag … When Equus leaves – if he leaves at all – it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements.”
Dysart has confessed to Alan his own secret desire: to escape his work, his home.
ALAN: Where would you go?
DYSART: Yes. There’s a sea – a great sea – I love … It’s where the Gods used to bathe.
ALAN: What Gods?
DYSART: The old ones. Before they died.
ALAN: Gods don’t die.
DYSART: Yes, they do.
And earlier, when he told Hesther of his true passion for the world, his own form of worship, Dysart was offering it to us too. Knowing he’d never find it himself but warning us: try – find every way through, out of the Normal and into something more real.
DYSART: I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could … stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones like Zeus – no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs – just as of certain frowns and slouches … I’d say to them – ‘Worship as many as you can see – and more will appear!’
It’s a passion not for the abstract but the particular vision – of place, of person and of the more-than-human world: a renewed and habitual relationship with habitat.
DYSART: And of all the nonsensical things – I keep thinking of the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? Not to be a horse any longer? Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together – the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life – and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? … I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says [Mocking] ”Why? … Why Me? Why – ultimately – Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!”
Find out more
I first discovered Equus through Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation, with Richard Burton as Martin Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan Strang.The screenplay was adapted by Peter Shaffer himself.
Questioning extremity? Space for creative thinking...
"Extremity is the point," suggests Martin Dysart - in the world of Normal, where passion is flattened out, made safe, and industrialsed violence against animals (human and non-human) is hidden from sight. Freed from a need for any 'final, coherent explanation', what extremity might your creative practice bring to light?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!