Writer Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.
710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.
In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.
An Arctic outpost
After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.
As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.
First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.
Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.
I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.
When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.
In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.
It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.
At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.
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With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.
Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.
2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes
Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.
I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.
To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.
Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.
So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.
A multidisciplinary science
I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.
This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.
I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.
What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.
A biographical history of climate science
As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.
There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.
My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.
We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.
In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.
The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.
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Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”
In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men.
Artist Linda Gordon was invited to lead a land art workshop using natural materials at Extinction Rebellion’s Rising Tide Festival in North Devon. She describes an experience of co-operation and natural harmony: “In other words, a sane community.”
1,940 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
The Rebel Rising, Rising Tide weekend — organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest, at Tapeley Park, North Devon — was characterised by fun and relaxation, underpinned by some important and serious talks: some covering aspects of the gathering climate and ecological crisis we are facing; others giving guidance on how best to bring about change, and on the role of XR. There was some great music throughout, both live and recorded — and a huge range of relaxing activities: family yoga, meditation, massage… And a number of craft workshops and nature-related activities, for example, forest school bushcraft, permaculture and nature and forest therapy.
A range of authoritative speakers were on hand to give expert talks, including Jozette Kimba of Stop Ecocide — an organisation committed to getting the law changed, and making large-scale destruction of our natural environment a crime. MEP Molly Scott Cato spoke about the Green Party and Green economics, and how this aimed to address social and economic inequalities around the world. Other talks and workshops covered practical information and strategies that the audience could, if they wished, put into action: for instance, ‘How to speak with the Media and present yourself as a spokesperson’.
A gathering place
I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect, never having attended an XR event before, but as the weekend drew nearer, it slowly dawned on me that there was going to be A LOT of people, and A LOT would be going on.
I stepped out of the car high up in the grassy field of Tapeley Park and gazed out over the wide expanse of gentle green Devon fields, bordered with trees, and down to the quiet Torridge Estuary below. Soft blue sky, wisps of white cloud, warm breeze, sunshine. Exploring and preparing for the workshop, pacing and fretting: ‘Where do I find more contrasting and varied materials? Shall I take people for a walk? How many will turn up? five or 55? What age groups? And does anybody really want to hear my memorised notes on ‘how trees support our lives’? Meanwhile, my friend and helper, Jann went off to a talk on fossil fuels and came back looking worried and concerned.
Of course, I knew perfectly well at the back of my mind that everything relating to the workshop would work out brilliantly, once I relinquished control — and of course, it did. Participants dived into making a beautiful mandala artwork and nobody needed to hear from the likes of me how to connect with the Earth!
Throughout the rest of the day, and all Sunday, people stopped by to take photos, or to add to the work with leaves, grasses, cones and flowers. The intention was to use the mandala as a gathering place for starting off the procession at the closing ceremony the next evening.
I relaxed in the peaceful atmosphere of congenial company, the spacious surroundings of Tapeley Park, and the mild, tranquil weather. At the Mandala art site faint scents of barbequed vegetables reached my nostrils. A few yards away, at the pop-up Green Library, a group of children sprawled on the grass under its awning, playing a board game. A few adults were relaxing in chairs, reading magazines, whilst another couple played at a small Subbuteo table.
A rising tide
On Sunday I took in a couple of talks. I listened to ‘Social Justice and the Green Movement’ by Dr Ed Atkins, from the University of Bristol, who spoke of the Green New Deal, with its aim of justice and fairness for all — that is, a complete restructuring and reform of our economic system, and urgent action to address the climate crisis we are all facing.
He gave some examples of appalling social and environmental abuses in other parts of the world, particularly relating to our society’s massive demand for sand in order to build our towns and cities — leading to very lucrative and often criminal sand extraction enterprises in faraway countries.
Closer to home, in the light of what we all know — that our economy is driven by the richest sector of society — he spoke of the need to keep social discussion going: to protect the vulnerable, to respect workers’ rights and the right to work. I very much liked that on inviting questions at the end of his talk, he was also able to give people helpful tips on their individual local or family concerns.
I must have been in a geological mood that day, for the second talk I chose was titled ‘Resource Exploitation and General Climate Q&A’ by Professor Jon Blundy, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. He talked of the role of earth scientists in addressing and resolving current climate and environmental problems.
Professor Blundy, an expert in the processes of magma beneath the earth’s crust, began by explaining the creation of minerals in the magma, then went on to discuss the unfettered extraction of copper, iron, coal and rare earths by unscrupulous mining companies in various countries. He gave examples of the environmental damage and human suffering caused by such activities.
He also explained the vital importance of copper as a conductor in electrical systems and how it has the potential for massively reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, when it comes to extracting materials of great value for whatever reason, an increase in scale can cause devastation to local populations around the mining areas and add to the already known global effects of climate change.
I must admit, I was previously fairly ignorant of much of what I heard from these two speakers, and the distressing implications of it all, but now I am glad that I am more aware of it.
Their observations and information struck me of great importance to life as we know it, drawing our attention to social and environmental suffering and injustices around the world; in encouraging others to take action on some of these issues (for instance, speaking at XR events), and in pointing the way towards possible solutions to some of the problems. And certainly we are going to need to make radical changes in our economic structures and industrial practices if we are going to avert what looks like rapidly approaching disaster for many species, including our own.
However, I doubt that science alone, although a wonderful tool, will necessarily resolve all our social and ecological ills. It all depends upon how the science is used. My current personal view is that time is indeed running out. Unless we humans can wake up fast to the realisation that life is all one, and we are all interdependent — then things don’t look too good.
A sane community
Later, I had a good look around the area, at the many stalls and signs of earlier activity. I wandered among the people quietly relaxing on the grass in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. And I spent some time in the huge marquee enjoying music and singing by the Southwest based female trio, Boudicca’s Child.
Back at the Mandala, where my workshop had been held, and which by now had accumulated further additions of flowers and woodland materials, I met with the four people who would be leading the Closing Ceremony. They represented the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Instead of gathering everyone together around the mandala as originally planned, they decided to prepare themselves around it, with a quiet ‘smudging’ ritual. Smudging is a method of purifying and cleansing one’s energy with smouldering sage smoke, practised by some North American Indian tribes and also by some other cultures. I believe sage smoke has been found by science to have beneficial effects on our stress levels. It certainly has a very pleasant scent!
Shortly before 5pm people from all over the Park gathered together in the high open field, ready to walk in procession to an area of woodland — to an ancient oak tree, reputed to be 1,000 years old, where the ceremony was to be held.
Perhaps the most moving part of the festival for me, was walking with several hundred others through the trees, slowly and in silence (apart from a single repeating drumbeat) — with the late afternoon sunlight dancing off the leafy canopy and shining through the soft colours of the XR flags.
An uninvited thought flitted through my mind: ‘All this is what we stand to lose’.
Then followed the solemn moment, around the ancient oak, when we all pledged to love and care for the Earth to the very best of our ability.
A slow quiet walk back to the place where we had started, and then I was back again to the mandala, to begin the process of clearing everything away. It was necessary to leave the site as we had found it, as Tapeley Park would be open to the general public the following morning. I returned the woodland material to the woods, and someone took the bunch of flowers she had contributed, and went to place them under the ancient oak tree.
People were beginning to leave now, to catch trains and buses or drive long distances home. But many stayed on to enjoy a Great Feast and music, which brought the Rising Tide Festival to a close.
Being tired and a little overwhelmed with new thoughts and experiences, I didn’t stay for this. However, I did take a large bag of tin cans home to recycle! This was a successful and very well organised event, run on mutual goodwill, with volunteers working on everything from cooking, manning the carpark and the forest of tents, running the information post and the sound system, organising the clearing up and dismantling stuff at the end, the laying on of buses to meet trains from Barnstaple station, to the massive amount of background organisation that must have been needed beforehand. I felt a comfortable and mutually supportive balance between the many relaxing, earth-related activities and the serious nature of the talks and educational workshops. Both are important, I think, in strengthening the XR movement in its purpose as a protest movement committed to compelling governments to act effectively on climate and ecological turmoil. Indeed, one of the workshops offered was on staying calm, centred and connected with oneself and others, at XR Actions.
I can’t speak for others, but it seemed to me the atmosphere throughout the weekend was one of co-operation and trust, and a natural harmony with the immediate surroundings — in other words, a sane community. I was pleased to be one of this large number of people, drawn together largely by sadness at the state of our world, and a willingness to put things right and act in whatever non-violent way required.
Find out more
The Rising Tide Festival was held from 6th to 8th September at Tapeley Park, North Devon, and was organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest. For a list of the workshops and talks, see XR Festivals: Devon, England. You can also find information on the local XR group at xrfrome.org
Stop Ecocide is run by Ecological Defence Integrity (EDI), a small UK non-profit founded by the late Polly Higgins with a team of international criminal lawyers, diplomats and evidence experts working to advance a law of ecocide at the International Criminal Court.
Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.
1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes
“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….” – Simon Read
One — driven to be part of the problem
The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:
“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”
This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.
That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.
Two — the Great Derangement
As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.
Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.
Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.
Three — ensemble practices
In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.
Four — between self and other
I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.
‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.
The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.
Five — placing the artist
Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?
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Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”
When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.
You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog. In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.
Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”
Climate change dramatist Julia Marques looks to her recent experience directing a play about environmental crisis to ask how community and other positive features of amateur dramatics groups might offer us routes into addressing the climate emergency itself.
2,060 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
“We need a director for our spring production. Julia, why don’t you direct an environmental play?”
And, as quickly as that, I was in charge of the next production of my local amateur dramatics group, the Beaufort Players in Ealing, West London.
I’m not sure I fully understood the task at hand when I accepted the job, as I have only ever directed one other production (which was not a full-length play) in a previous amateur arts society. It turns out that directing requires high levels of multi-tasking, including the ability to create posters, choose set colours, help source props, secure a sound and lighting team, write a piece for the programme and ensure your cast have adequate costumes and makeup. This is in addition to the stereotypical, but fairly accurate, job of telling actors where to go and how to deliver lines on stage.
I found the experience thrilling, stressful and rewarding in equal measure. You have the power and the responsibility to shape the play in whatever way you want, to interpret it how you see fit and to focus on what you want the audience to get from it. But, as the famous quotation says, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and directing is no exception. Everything is riding on your leadership and the decisions you make — the buck stops with you. However, it is also thrilling to have a whole team of people standing by you every step of the way, and I wholeheartedly believe that this is what amateur theatre groups do best — community. I have come to the realisation through this process of directing that I do truly think that amateur dramatics societies could be used as a model for community-building that could indeed help with the environmental situation we find ourselves in today.
A sense of community is a glorious thing; you feel supported and safe. You have people you can talk to (in this case, about where to find fake blood and whether we can emulate a flood on stage or not), people who share your sense of purpose and are with you till the bitter end! They share your vision and work with you to make it a reality — simply wonderful. Can you imagine if we used this dynamic to work towards a more Earth-centred way of living where we all supported each other through the transition and reached our goals together? What would that world look like?
Let’s look at some of the main elements of a local am dram group and how these could possibly form a community model for greater ecological sensibility.
‘The play’s the thing’
Common purpose — this is not a new idea, most societies are exactly that, a group of people with a shared interest. It’s what you do with this that counts. In an am dram group, you are a team and everyone pitches in and does a bit of everything. Very often, being in a play means not only acting but helping with the set, props, costume, hair and make-up, front of house, selling programmes and drinks, lighting, sound, prompting, directing, producing, designing and general moral support. I think the support offered in this sort of situation is invaluable. I have heard it said that members of amateur groups are often more dedicated than those in professional companies. This may be surprising as everyone is a volunteer — no one is getting paid. Perhaps this flexibility and willingness to help with whatever needs doing is the key. People are not stuck doing one job, they are actively encouraged to do as many as they can! This sense of freedom and the responsibility granted to people is empowering, and maybe that’s what we need for more environmental action. You are involved, empowered, active and purposeful. When people feel these sentiments then things really get moving.
There is a committee that meets regularly to discuss how the group is doing, made up of a chairperson, treasurer, secretary and some ordinary members. Tasks are divided up and reported on, productions discussed and minutes taken. Leadership is still needed but the group is carried by its members.
Small is beautiful — there are many am dram groups of varying sizes, but I think there is probably an optimal size for everyone to feel included in the group and to feel as though they are familiar enough with others in the group to feel comfortable there.
We work towards a production three times a year. Having an end goal motivates people, spurs them into action. You can’t underestimate that sense of achievement when the curtain opens and a fully-formed show spreads its wings to take flight. The thought, “I was part of making this happen”, is a powerful one.
In a previous post for ClimateCultures, I discussed the idea that theatre can provide us a ‘space for thought’. As part of an acting group, you have time together and time apart. This affords you both space to think and space to act. Previously, I had only focused on the audience members being afforded the space to think within the performance but this is true of those involved in the performance too. Let’s take the actor; they are given a script (much of the time) and direction but then they must also go and learn their lines by themselves and practise the actions they have rehearsed. Space to think individually and space to act communally. This space to think is important both for the audience and the cast and crew.
Could we combine these elements — common purpose, sense of inclusivity, familiarity, and working towards an end goal, being given responsibility and tasks to do, and creating both a communal and individual space for thought and action — to form enviro-action groups to increase our ecological connections?
Moving beyond business as usual
Back to the play. The one I finally settled on is The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. It was published and first performed in 2016 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It revolves around three retired nuclear engineers who helped set up a plant on the east coast of England which has been damaged by a tidal wave before the play begins. Two of the characters are a married couple and the third is an old friend and colleague who appears unannounced at the start of the play. The reason she has come is not revealed until the middle, and I will not spoil it for those of you who wish to read or see it, but suffice it to say that she offers them a life-defining decision to change their ways or simply continue as before (‘business as usual’, I believe is the phrase).
HAZEL: How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy?
This obviously echoes recent global events, and not only climate-change related ones. This is fairly insightful of Lucy Kirkwood, as she started writing the play years before it was published. It also really brings us face to face with the idea of generational responsibility, and asks us if we have the ability to consider future generations while making decisions today. This resonates with indigenous practices in which, as researcher Liz Hosken says, “indigenous leaders are also accountable to past, present and future generations”. This is an extremely difficult concept for many of us who are not part of an indigenous group to get our heads around, as we are such short-term thinkers usually. Considering anything more than simply one generation into the future is somewhat mind-blowing; what will that world even look like? We have no way of knowing for sure, but at least we can play our part in ensuring that it is a little better because we made it so.
ROSE: It’s a good thing though, isn’t it?
ROSE: Well. Learning to live with less.
ROBIN: Well you might have to.
The opinions flowing from the audience reflected my own feelings for the play — it’s a beautiful mixture of laughter, tears, playfulness and significance. Each section is thought-provoking in its own way. The choices the characters have to make are ones we ourselves are also being faced with. The play’s overall theme for me is how you value your life and the lives of others and what you are willing to sacrifice for them; what does selflessness really mean? Woven into this, Kirkwood adds inter-generational decision-making, guilt and responsibility, all contained within the four walls of the cottage kitchen and the three corners of a love triangle!
I think it would be almost impossible at this stage not to mention Extinction Rebellion. The group — eco-activists using civil disobedience and direct action — nearly reached their goal of two weeks of disruption in London earlier this year. Their actions started shortly after we had finished our play, which was unplanned I might add! Perhaps this is a new type of community that is forming to create environmental awareness and action. They certainly made an impact and managed to disrupt some of the central parts of the city.
ROSE: I do understand now, that for the world to you know completely fall apart, that we can’t have everything we want just because we want it.
Another model of community-based action is being enacted through the Transition Towns movement. As Liz Hosken says, “social movements such as Transition Towns in the industrialised countries are the beginning of the recognition of our need to reconnect with place in order to find identity, well-being and to learn once again how to live with ecological integrity, in compliance with the laws which inherently govern our lives”. In my local borough of Ealing, our Transition group has influenced the council to declare a Climate Emergency — before the UK parliament did so. Transition groups are community-led and really do work at the local level to inspire members to move towards an environmentally-focused way of being that is beneficial to all.
ROSE: You have the power to … you have a power. You have power.
My own vision is to have more people feel they are part of something, even if that is only a gardening group or a clean air petition: to feel as though they have a community. This is what the Beaufort Players have given me, and it really does help you feel happier and more purposeful, which is what we need when it comes to the environment. There is so much doom and gloom and we must move beyond that if we are to act with passion rather than stagnate in fear.
Just as with the characters on a stage, we must find our part to play in the ensemble of life.
You can read Julia’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Space for Thought, where she reflects on her research at that time for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in what climate change means for us.
You can read more about Transition Towns — and find transition groups and activities nearest to you — at Transition Network.
Extinction Rebellion has many local groups and resources on its site, and Culture Declares Emergency lists its signatories, including Royal Court Theatre — where The Children was first performed — and many other theatre and other cultural organisations. Royal Court’s Executive Producer Lucy Daviesis also a ClimateCultures Member and her post, Artists’ Climate Lab, describes a special week of creative activities she and others devised for artists working in London’s leading theatres.