Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Berneray Community Polycrub_2016ClimateCultures welcomes Laura Donkers, an environmental artist who has developed a form of eco-social art engagement that works with the embodied knowledge of a community to help develop climate literacy. Currently in the final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University, Laura describes her approach to and experience of working with local communities in Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, before — in her next post — she moves to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research. 

approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes  


For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods. 


I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.

It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.

My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.


And socially engaged art practice?

This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.

Reimagining place

So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.

Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.

A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.

An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school. 

machairart film short from Laura Donkers on Vimeo.

As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors. 

Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.

This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.

The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.

Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.

My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.

Making space for climate conversations 

I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.

Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub_2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.

Looking beyond the west   

My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.

I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence. 

To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.

This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts. 


Find out more

Laura Donkers is an artist-researcher resident in Uist, Outer Hebrides whose practice involves developing an interpretive and participatory position within the community, contributing to eco-social actions, and creating interactive multi-media artworks that record and disseminate the embodied knowledge of that community. She has recently devised and led a series of Scottish Government Climate Challenge Fund Projects: Local Food for Local People (2015-17) and Grow Your Own Community (2017-2020). Her practice is rooted in the idea of co-creativity, working interactively with communities. The work focuses on understanding how humans affect the world. You can find out more at Laura’s ClimateCultures Directory page and her website

The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices.

The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development. 

UNFIX Festival — Unfix the Situation

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik KnudsenClimateCultures welcomes artistic director and performer Paul Michael Henry, who has devised and delivered successive UNFIX festivals. I first met Paul at the TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option event I helped organise back in 2016. Here, he discusses his motivation and ambitions for these international gatherings and explorations, ahead of UNFIX 2019 next month.

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes  


UNFIX is a multi-art form festival based in Glasgow, New York and Tokyo. It starts from the proposition that the Anthropocene is happening inside your body, RIGHT NOW. The 2019 Edition is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow.

I started UNFIX in 2015, looking to ‘Climate Change’ like a lightning rod for the vague and specific discomforts about this society that have plagued me all my life. People keep mis-labelling it ‘Unfixed’ or ‘The Unfix’ but it’s UNFIX: a command form. A verb and activity.

A loosening, disburdening, freeing-up. Anti-fatalistic, with the assumption that it doesn’t have to be like this. I experience climate change as a terrible affirmation: we cannot treat each other, ourselves and our surroundings this way. We can’t walk around with these egos functioning the way they do, and live.

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik Knudsen
UNFIX 2019
Image: Henrik Knudsen © 2019

Situation crisis

When the ‘Banking Crisis’ hit in 2008 it occurred to me (and others I’m sure) that it could just as well be called the Banking Opportunity. With the cracks briefly showing, it could be a moment of vulnerability for finance and late capitalism, a gap in the concrete where something new could spring up. The fact that it wasn’t speaks simply to the aggregate level of human consciousness at that time. We were not awake enough.

I’m a Glaswegian artist whose work tends to focus on the body — specifically, the body as an ecological reality traumatised by, and intimately connected to, wider currents of politics, patriarchy, capitalism and climate change. I’m also interested in the body’s ability to soften these by love, connection and embodied understanding. I’m uninterested in finger-pointing, and am probably some kind of mystic at heart.

Actually part of that is a lie. I’d love to finger point, and sometimes I do. Jump up and down and rail at the capitalists and the patriarchs and the selfish and the sleeping, righteously righteously. Weep publicly, perhaps on TV, cradling plastic smothered turtles in my too late saviour’s arms. But climate change really isn’t about me and a wiser part of me knows that. It swallows me and I need to reckon with it, I live inside it and it shames me and prompts me to act.

When I don’t live in alignment with my values (which is often), a rat gnaws my stomach. The rat is tamed when I take actions with my whole being, like starting a festival for misfit artists to say what’s burning in our gizzards and draw what attention we can to The Situation. 

Paul Michael Henry in Shrimp Dance Image by Brian Hartley
Shrimp Dance, Paul Michael Henry. Platform, Glasgow October 2017.
Image: Brian Hartley © 2017

Situation opportunity 

The first UNFIX happened because a wonderful venue (the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) was foolish enough to give me the keys to the building for a weekend. I was living in a camper van at the time, completely skint and dreaming. We teamed up, dozens of artists and activists, nobody getting paid, and we staged performances and film screenings and debates and ate together at another great venue (the Project Cafe) who made us all food from ingredients foraged in Kelvingrove Park. It felt a bit explosive. People still tell me how it affected them, boosted their resilience. I dunno. I’d like to think so.

But I mean: it’s art. The Situation persists. I throw my tiny actions and those of the artists involved in UNFIX on the pile, to be added to the older generations who saw this coming (the Joanna Macys, the Alastair McIntoshes) and the younger just now exploding in beauty (the school-age climate strikers). Outcomes are unknowable so I align myself, not sure, opting — as Alastair is fond of saying — to “Dig where I stand.”

So what about the Climate Opportunity? I don’t think shouting at Trump is going to be enough, though it is surely a part of it. But when I project all my climate rage outwards I’m being dishonest. I think that all of us raising our levels of awareness, radically –individually, in small groups, in large groups, in continental blocks, in cross currents and collaborations, and in the owning of our own shadows — CHANGING OURSELVES from the inside out, might make a difference.

I don’t know what our chances of survival as something resembling the human species are, and I’m agnostic about whether we deserve it. I’m to blame and you’re to blame and everyone is confused and the most ignorant and ego-driven have the most power and will kill us all if we let them. OK OK. The Situation. Perhaps we should just get to work?

Minako Seki Image by Ulrich Heemann
Minako Seki
Image: Ulrich Heemann © 2019

UNFIX 2019

This year’s UNFIX Festival has some (a little) money behind it. For the first time I have a budget and producers and paperwork, and people to account to afterwards. And I can pay the artists taking part, more or less. All of which makes me nervous because it dilutes my standing as someone powerless and shouting on the sidelines (my strongest suit). It’s not much power, mind.

If I were king, I would outlaw the term Consumers. Swap in the word Organism, or System, or ConsumerDigesterExcreter. I would have mandatory shit cannons primed for every time someone says ‘Economic Growth’. All would bow down before my solutions. Righteously Righteously.

I am not king, thankfully, signing on instead each day as an average-extraordinary worker bee in the Anthropocene: of unique gifts and no special importance, grief-stricken and hopeful and sometimes sick and faltering and giving up and starting again.

Who looks out through your eyes when you think about climate change? 


Find out more

Paul Michael Henry makes performances that, most of the time, end up on a stage, but he also makes recorded music and films and collaborates on other artists’ projects. He is artistic director of UNFIX Festival and teaches dance workshops called The Dreaming Body. His themes are political, social and spiritual, dealing with love, neglect of the body, destruction of the environment and atrophy of the soul in consumerist society. You can find out more at Paul’s ClimateCultures Directory profile and his website

UNFIX 2019 is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow. It will feature contributions from local and international artists and organisations including Minako Seki, Alberta Whittle, Chistiana Bissett, The Workroom, Extinction Rebellion, Creative Carbon Scotland, Niya B, Ruaridh Law, Verónica Mota/Urban Arts Berlin, VID art|science, Yulia Kovanova, NIGHTPARADE, Katrine Turner, VIDIV, Adam Fish, Paul Michael Henry and The Dark Mountain Project. You can discover more at www.unfixfestival.com. Tickets are on a sliding scale and can be purchased from the CCA website.

“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s recent book, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis. This captivating and challenging read urges the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.

approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.

Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818
Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818 in ‘Engravings of the Skeleton of the Human Body’ by John Gordon).

The mind of the wild

In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.

The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”

Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.

Learning to die

In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:

To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.

Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:

Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.

The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!

Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it. 


Find out more 

James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entry and sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project and one of the creative minds behind the Waterlight Project: both of whose websites I edit.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky is published by University of Regina Press, Canada (2018).

Out of Range

In a welcome return to our pages, poet Nancy Campbell reviews fellow poet (and ClimateCultures Member) Nick Drake’s new collection, Out of Range. These poems celebrate proximity and distance — spatial, temporal or emotional — to remark on the state we’re in. Written with poignancy, formal facility and intense honesty, they take the reader on a journey through known worlds and into unknown ones. 

approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


Nick Drake has established a reputation for profound engagement with that trickiest of cultural endeavours, formulating a creative response to the climate crisis. Last summer saw the premier by London Symphonietta of Cave, an opera in which Drake’s libretto and Tansy Davies’ score relate a grieving father’s search for survival in a world devastated by climate change. Back in 2010 Drake was among the group of artists and scientists selected for the Cape Farewell voyage around the Svalbard archipelago; the resulting book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier bears witness to the effects of climate change on the polar ice. Increasingly, as the imminent consequences of sea level rise and species extinction become clear (not to mention human culpability) it is implausible to write of the natural world in isolation. Drake’s poems consider human nature, its ingenuity and artifice, our capacity for enacting violence on other humans as well as on the biosphere, whether actively or by omission. One of these works was enshrined in a permanent public art installation about Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, beneath a bridge in London’s Paddington Basin: Message from the Unseen World

I imagine the cycle courier — the dazzling, zig-zagging star of Through the red light, the first poem in Drake’s new collection, “appearing from the primordial chaos / of the underpass … / not giving a flying fuck about red lights” — might have recently swung past Message from the Unseen World, heedless in his haste to the work’s continually shifting texts, its own unpredictable, algorithmic dynamics. The courier is destined to become a text too: it’s the poet who captures him, not a speed camera, before — like many other urban demi-gods in this electrifying collection — he passes ‘out of range’. Drake celebrates his outmanoeuvring of heavy gas-guzzling vehicles, his transgressive speed, before leading the reader on a book-long journey through known worlds and into unknown ones. 

Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Out of Range, by Nick Drake

The ordinary-extraordinary 

There is a devastating trio of Arctic poems (the polar ice, once seen, is not easily forgotten), but on the whole Drake turns his scrutiny on regions closer to home, from Achiltibue in the Highlands of Scotland to London’s East End. These may be familiar places, but Drake reveals afresh their ‘magic, mystery and wonder’, those qualities which the Romantic poet, mystic and mineralogist Novalis (1772-1801) once defined as the goal of the Romantic movement. In these poems Drake seems to share Novalis’s desire to awaken the reader: “to educate the senses, to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It is our everyday actions which need scrutiny in these times, being those which will destroy us.

Drake’s poems take a close and compassionate look at ordinary, sometimes disposable, objects that are too often taken for granted or scorned. Many have been created, cultivated or traded by humans — incandescent lightbulbs, a fatberg in the city’s sewers, peaches:

sunset red in their soft blue cardboard beds
that safeguarded their journey from the trees …
via the cargo belly of a 747

— Peaches for the Solstice.

The elegy for the fatberg (which is so graphic it is hard to read without gagging) is titled Stranger Thing, calling to mind Rilke’s Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), quiet works which W.H. Auden described in the New Republic as expressing ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols”. Auden continued: “While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” In Drake’s work there is scarcely a filament, a “hair’s breadth” between these dualities. This approach has interesting ramifications at the present moment, when material culture threatens to overwhelm us.

In Still Life: Plastic Water Bottle (used), the now-ubiquitous shape of the bottle takes over the poem. It is as if plastic particles have made their way into the poem, as insidiously as they have the waters of the world. The layout of the text emphasises how impossible the physical object is to destroy. The water bottle speaks, asks: “Why did you / make us in / your image?” The reader gathers that, in the bottle’s worldview, humans are gods — but gods who find their creation turning against them. There are hints of the exiled duke and sorcerer Prospero, who governs the seas and creates storms, in echoes of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Drake’s poem is most reminiscent of the work of another Romantic poet, John Keats, whose Ode on a Grecian Urn considered human achievement in creating a vessel that outlasted ages, that told a story of its times. Whereas Keats hymned eternal Beauty — “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” — Drake predicts eternal waste (unless an alternative ‘skin’ to plastic can be found?). Whereas Keats addressed the urn, it is Drake’s water bottle that addresses the reader, depriving the human of any voice or agency within the poem. In both poems, however, the enduring nature of the vessel becomes a means to meditate on human temporality.

The most haunting example of ‘the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred’ in this collection comes in Ollamalloni, a poem which describes the experience of a common Aztec ball game from the perspective of a priest who believes he is witnessing a religious ritual. (Written for the London Olympics 2012, it indirectly celebrates the capital on a cultural high, before the 2016 Referendum.) Throughout the collection, without anger or agenda, a picture of the city and a febrile wider world emerges. London’s various pleasures include dancing in gay clubs until 3 a.m., the comforting fluorescent glow of all-night stores, and people-watching in cafes at weekends — it’s a place in which, despite many inequalities, people at least have the right to love who they choose. But encounters between humans are rarely satisfying. The poet is more likely to interact with the whorl of hair at the back of stranger’s head, scrutinised while sitting on the top deck of a bus, than look into their eyes. The script of the street is a tragic monologue: the ‘raving statue’ of a begger (Maenad); a homeless man, venting his rage on being taken short and finding the public toilets closed (London Fields). In Night Bus, a man who is ‘keening’ and incomprehensible:

calling out
lamentations to the empty street —

What words in what languages is he yelling
across time zones and distances?

While some poems present uninhibited diatribes, others consider barriers to communication. In The Dancing Satyr, a bronze statue at the Royal Academy has been dredged up from the sea — a poignant forerunner of the plastic water bottle, perhaps. It is “resuscitated but refusing to answer our interrogations” and, like a warped digital device, “uttering a modem feedback / at a pitch too extreme for human ears to hear”.

The Dancing Satyr, from the Royal Academy exhibition, 'Bronze' (2012)
The Dancing Satyr
Royal Academy exhibition, ‘Bronze’ (2012)
royalacademy.org.uk

Out of range

Communication across distance is a preoccupation — whether through the fine arts of the past or the obdurate and brilliant promise of technology. In the title poem, a mobile phone no longer works ‘out of range’. Failing to get a signal, Drake retreats to the “windowed coffin” of what might be “the last phone box on earth”. He speaks past the dead spiders in the handset, into an unseen place 5,000 miles distant, tapping into “rush-hour babble”. The ability to communicate at the vast range of a globalised society is necessary to facilitate our closest relationships — and the future.

The phone box might also be a Tardis, of course, although Drake is too subtle to say so — and this ambitious book doesn’t stop at the Earth’s atmosphere but takes the reader into outer space. The roads along which the cycle courier swoops are supplanted by a more vertiginous course. The furthest range in the collection is saved for the Voyager I spacecraft:

with the immortal gold LP

fixed on your side,
coded for ancient technology, our message
of the sounds of life on earth, all that we are
or wish to seem –

Life on Earth.

Voyager I carries a message that will have aged by the time it reaches its destination: “44,000 nightfall years / to the next star”. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, for the optimist there are two options for humanity’s future: “First, the exploration of space for alternative planets on which to live, and second, the positive use of artificial intelligence to improve our world.” The irony is that the technologies that characterise the Anthropocene, dependent on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals, have condemned human life, but also that — in the eyes of some thinkers — these same inventions now have the potential to save us too. 

The Voyager Golden Record, from NASA
The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

Technology facilitates connections between those who share a city (or planet, or solar system), between lovers, partners, friends, strangers, and those unknown generations who may inhabit a future world. They are present as a “delayed echo” (Out of Range). This convincing instinct for — not to put too fine a point upon it — love, mitigates grief at what is being lost. One poem, Send, returns to that by-now familiar anxiety about communication. The reader is relieved to discover that sending a text message will be less troublesome than the titular phone call. Initially, this gives every appearance of being a traditional sonnet, a love poem across time zones, with echoes of Shakespearean doubling in the lover’s observation of time differences: “my summer day’s your night”. In the fourteenth line — which in a sonnet would be the last — the narrator claims to hear voices in the cloud: “I know they say we love what we must lose.” But Drake does not permit such a mournful conclusion: “this poem will not have that ending”. Another quatrain follows, and no full stop.

Send, and other poems in this collection, aspires to connectivity rather than catharsis. Can our everyday actions rewrite the formal structures which surround us, Drake asks. Can we wrench fate around, and tell a different story to that which the satyr screams, as it dances “to Earth’s lost songs / in the radiant silence of the boundless dark”?


Find out more

Nancy Campbell is a writer and poet whose most recent book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, (published by Scribner UK, 2018) was reviewed for ClimateCultures by Sally Moss. Nancy has previously published a poetry collection, Disko Bay, and artists’ books, including The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet. Nancy is the current UK Canal Laureate, a role appointed by The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.

You can find more of her work in her Directory entry and at nancycampbell.co.uk. Nancy’s previous posts for ClimateCultures are The Polar Tombola and A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7.   

Out of Range is Nick Drake‘s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a Cape Farewell voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change.

You can read three of Nick’s poems from Out of Range in full as part of his own contribution to the ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 ObjectsChronicle of the Incandescent LightbulbStill life: Plastic water bottle (used); and Stranger Thing. (And, in the first post in that series, you can also find my own reflections on the record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft that is the subject of Nick’s title poem, Out of Range).

For more of Nick’s poetry, fiction and other work — including Message from the Unseen World, his tribute to Alan Turing located in Paddington Basin — see his ClimateCultures Directory entry and www.nickfdrake.com.

You can watch a Royal Academy video showing The Dancing Satyr and discussing its discovery in the seas off Sicily in the 1990s. 

Earthrise

Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968For my second personal offering in our new series, Gifts of Sound and Vision, I’ve chosen Earthrise. This is a series where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change. Earthrise is a recent film about a moment half a century ago that transformed our vision of the world and of what might be possible in this short historic episode, modern human civilisation. 

approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes 


Fifty years ago, on 28th December 1968, three men returned to Earth after a six-day journey during which they became the first humans ever to escape the gravity of their home planet. They had slipped into deep space, entered the moon’s gravity and made ten orbits of that world to observe what people assumed one day might become a new base for interplanetary exploration.

As such, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first humans to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the first to see the Earth rising above the moon’s grey horizon. As this excellent 30-minute film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee shows, using archive footage from that 1968 Apollo 8 mission alongside present-day recollections from all three crew members, the Earth offered the only patch of colour they could see in all the universe. The deep black of space, countless sharp white stars, the moon’s grey endless plains and craters rolling on and on just 60 miles beneath their capsule — and the one white-blue-green-brown marble that emerged in front of them, over 240,000 miles away. 

That thumb-sized ball was home, and the colour photo they took of that first Earthrise — an instinctive, spur-of-the-moment act and a wholly unplanned byproduct of their mission — had an immediate and deep impact on everyone who saw it after their return fifty years ago, just as the sight of distant home had a lasting impact on those three men.

The ‘whole Earth’ image became the emblem of a new environmental awareness, the icon of an emerging age, and the hope of those three astronauts that national boundaries and short-term, near horizon problems might somehow start to lose their fatal grip on our imaginations. They admit in this film to being disappointed that this hope has not been delivered on, yet.

In 1968, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 320 parts per million — already significantly above levels experienced by any human civilisation, along with the increases in global average atmospheric temperatures and sea levels that go with elevated CO2. 50 years later, our planet’s atmosphere is 410 ppm CO2 and this is still rising. The record-breaking temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidity, habitat destruction and species loss all also keep on rising.

50 years from now?

This is all uncharted territory, as was the space between Earth and our moon before 1968. The Apollo 8 crew’s expedition was a mission of firsts, and so is ours. They came back with a new way of seeing our world, and we also have to find our own and to deliver on the hope that Borman, Lovell and Anders found in a place that’s the furthest from home that any human had ever been or has been since. There is no other home.

It’s worth watching the film for the words of those three men then and now as much as for the images, and I’ve avoided quoting them here in the hope that you will go and watch it for yourself. But here is one to end with, which speaks to the power of imagination and of art of all kinds to trigger imagination at individual and collective scales, and to inspire new hope:

“The photograph itself was the thing that everybody liked. I mean it represented Apollo 8. And it could be almost like saying it was the fourth astronaut, because it was there and it did the job. One frame had showed exactly our existence.” 

Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968
Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968
Photographer: William Anders

Find out more

Earthrise (2018) by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is available to view at the Global Oneness Project, of which Emmanual and Cleary Vaughan-Lee are directors. You can also download a series of school and university level discussion guides about the film, and their other projects.

You can find Time and Tide, my previous post for this series on the Gifts of Sound and Vision page, where future contributions will also be collected as part of our Curious Minds section.