The Riddle of the Trees: A Paean for the Natural World

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: 10 minutes   


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.

(Excerpt from The Riddle of the Trees, © Salli Hipkiss 2008. Latest edition 2017. As yet unpublished. All rights reserved.)


‘Rooted’ Acrylic and pastel on canvas
Image: Salli Hipkiss © 2000
www.sallihipkiss.com

Love for the natural world

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 Trees it 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. 

Puck’s Glen, Scotland.
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2006
www.sallihipkiss.com

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 both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…

…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere 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.

Rootedness

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.

Old Road, Yorkshire Dales
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2009
www.sallihipkiss.com

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 poemModest 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

Patrick Barkham’s quotation from Matthew Oates is in his review of three books on butterflies; Rainbow Dust; The Moth Snowstorm; and In Pursuit of Butterflies review – three tributes to the humble Lepidoptera, published in The Guardian (16/7/15).

You can find out more about Sharon Blackie’s work, including her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, at www.sharonblackie.net And you can download a sample chapter from her publisher, September Publishing.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) is published by Bloomsbury, and Wikipedia has a brief summary

Joseph Campbell’s The 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’s The 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. 

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was released by Studio Ghibli in 2001. In a 15th-anniversary review at Vice (20/7/16), Hannah Ewans discusses The Meaning of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, the Best Animated Film of All Time

What Use is Grief to a Horse?

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.]

DYSART: Blinded?

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?”

Cover of Equus
Design: Dewynters; Photograph: Simon Turtle © 2005

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

Still from the film adaptation, Equus
MGM Studios © 1977

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

The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
Photograph: British Museum, Creative Commons licence
http://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages

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: Somewhere.

ALAN: Secret?

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

The script of the play is published by Scribner / Simon & Schuster (2005).

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!

“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! 

 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #3

This Members' Post sees a welcome return by Jennifer Leach - fresh from another season of Reading's year-long Festival of the Dark - with her excellent contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Jennifer's selection of three objects evoking a past, a present and a future highlights care and nurture as constants across humanity's ages and communities, and her words move from prose to poetry with an ease that makes for a timeline of hope.

Object from the past – the first blanket

German and Chinese scientists investigating
Photograph © German Archeological Institute, Mayke Wagner
http://www.dainst.org/projekt/-/project-display/56627

There was a moment in human history where a mother, for the first time, took a covering and swaddled another in it. It was most likely an animal skin she took. Possibly soft, possibly not. Was it her cold old mother she enveloped? Was it her partner? Her feverish friend? Was it her child? Whoever it was, I imagine her gesture as a premeditated act of love.

From the skins of animals, blankets evolved into softly woven fleece, product of careful husbandry and responsive learning. Into the weavings over the years were entwined responses to the living world – stories, tales, colour harnessed from familiar plants, symbols, references to greater powers, and patterns laid down in homage to those observed in nature.

People wrapped themselves in imagination and creativity, to create a reverent, consoling, protective sheath of comfort and respite, to shelter their love in the midst of harsh lives.

Object from the present – the Trangia

Trangia cooking set
Photograph: Trangia © 2017 / Image effects: Jennifer Leach © 2017
http://trangia.se/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/bild_startsida1-1000×700.jpg

Ah the Trangia! What a marvellous union of creative thinking and problem solving, streamlined with beauty, functionality and brilliant design into an artefact with near-perfect qualities. An entire packaged stove, including pots, that is roughly the size of one standard camp cooking pot. Simplicity within nature.

Each time I use it – and we have used the same one for decades – I thrill at its Russian Doll abundance. I remove the tie that binds it together, and off comes the lid, which doubles as a frying pan. Two pots nestle inside and within the smallest lies the grip handle and the screw-lid burner. The whole family is held within the vented base, which lifts the burner off the ground and provides airflow, and a windscreen protecting pot and flame, even in the gales. All fuelled by a humble little burner punching above its weight.

Our faithful stove has accompanied us on a cycling honeymoon, up mountains and in tents. We bought a second to cope with the culinary demands of a growing family. What we have not stewed, brewed or fried on them is not worth eating. My daughter’s first proudly presented meal was created on a Trangia – for the record, cooked pasta with a tin of sweetcorn and a tin of tuna.

When Trangia brought out a little lidded kettle, with its own handle, to fit snugly inside the inner saucepan, my joy and awe were complete. The sheer abundant genius of it!

Object from the future – prayer wheel generator

Tibetan prayer wheel
Original photograph: Xinhua/Lin Yiguang © 2017 / Image effects: Jennifer Leach © 2017
http://eng.tibet.cn/culture/tibetan_buddhism/1449128868492.shtml

It will not be turned
By car
Nor bus
Nor plane
Nor mule
Nor by low-paid workers
Nor some robotic tool
But by each of us
Whilst the children play
And the sick and the old
And the tired
Will shut their eyes
And move it with their prayer.

All it will require

Is that my foot follow yours
And your foot follow mine
And my hand lead yours
And yours lead mine
And with our power
Combined
We will generate
High voltage
Song lines
To illuminate
The land.

Find out more

You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

Each post that appears in the series earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For her post, Jennifer receives a copy of Anticipatory History, edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett. This short book of mini-essays from a cross-disciplinary research network explores “the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes” and their wildlife.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

 "What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.