Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.
One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.
The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.
Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.
Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.
It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).
Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.
Drawing out a vast truth
Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.
While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.
The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.
In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.
I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.
Find out more
Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0
You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.
Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk field kit’s latest addition — an attractive and engaging set of cards that explores our planet’s 4.6 billion year timeline and offers us thoughtful paths into the living present.
approximate Reading Time: 7minutes
The same creative team who brought us the innovative Deep Time Walk app in 2017 has now released this beautifully illustrated pack of cards, laying out the timeline and the story of the development of the Earth and its life over our full 4.6 billion years. It’s a mini-encyclopedia and pocket guide to the origins and meaning of being human in our home world.
From Earth’s origins (4,600 million years ago) and Late Heavy Bombardment (4,100 MYA), through the arrival of the first RNA molecules (3,800 MYA) and life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (3,700 MYA) to the oldest fossils (3,400 MYA), this is a story of great detail and complexity that the pack’s writers — Geoff Ainscow, Dr Stephan Harding and Robert Woodford — have done a remarkable job of condensing into captivating and compelling prose. A whole team of artists have produced images to complement a narrative that could at times overwhelm us with technical ideas — ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (2,600 MYA), ‘Ediacarans / Cambrian explosion’ (500 MYA), ‘energetic mitcochondria’ (1,800 MYA) — but which never holds up the story. Many of the cards also come with very short quotations from scientists, thinkers and artists:
“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history.”
– Rachel Carson
“The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”
– Nan Shepherd
“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
– Thomas Berry
“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”
– Richard Powers
Each card covers 100 million years and, in around 150 words, does an admirable job of relating the known facts and the theories that give us our current understanding of where we’ve come from, just how far life on Earth has travelled in a succession of staggering biochemical novelties, biotic explosions and mass extinctions, and the humblingly brief span of time that is the story of our own species within this slow-fast-slow dance of the living planet.
The dawn of humans arrives 47 cards into the timeline — with the very next card bringing us to the present and into the Anthropocene. Breaking the steady pace of 100 million years per card to allow for this sudden explosion of various human species, the domination of Homo sapiens and our accelerating growth as a species and a world-shaping force, those last two cards in the sequence cover just 1 million years — “By about 500,000 years ago, early humans were making clothing to keep themselves warm, building shelters, creating fire and utilising hand axes.” If the card makers had stuck to the prehuman timescale of around 150 words per 100 million years, I reckon Homo sapiens — and the invention of words themselves — would have merited only the last syllable of the final word in the Anthropocene Epoch’s card: ‘extinction’.
The living present — a future on the cards
Fortunately, the story does not end there and the cards themselves continue, posing questions of our common future — ‘stabilised or hothouse Earth?’ — and offering suggestions for positive action and radical hope. The idea of these cards is itself an offering of action and hope in what it encapsulates as ‘the living present’: an opportunity to pause after the 4.6 billion year journey of the cards’ narrative and “take time to ground yourself again amidst the emotions that may be arising.” It’s an invitation to breathe with a renewed awareness of what the oxygen in your breath actually means in the long story of a living earth, what its exchange with carbon dioxide in your lungs means for our collective moment on Earth, and the work that your own particular community of microbes is doing with you here and now — inside the entity that you regard as ‘you’ — and your place in the community of beings now, as well as past and future:
“The influence of the deep past and the interdependence of the living present is all around you: it is your wider body, your greater self, our common home.”
Fittingly, then, the model for the cards — though complementary to the app itself, which is most likely to be experienced solo, whether on your favourite walk or in an encounter with some new place (either way, revealed as a localised but globally connected assemblage of soil, water, rock, sky and living beings) — is as a communal exploration, a conversation with others. You might share the pack with a friend or group as you walk together: perhaps taking turns to read out loud through the timeline; perhaps, stopping to consider some of the science and what it reveals in the living scene around you; maybe leafing through some of the illustrations and seeing what comes up in reflection on some of the questions you might share about the ecological and climate crises of our time.
Humanity’s place on Earth
The Living Present card poses a few ready questions to get just such a discussion started. “How do you feel about humanity’s place and impact on Earth now? … What strikes you about Earth’s long evolution?” My favourite question is probably “Has your sense of time shifted?”; whereas the ultimate challenge of “What can you do to help humanity shift towards a deep ecological consciousness?” is probably too daunting for most of us, even (or especially) after such an encounter with the immensity of Deep Time. It’s hard to feel at one and the same time the great immensity of the living planet over timescales vastly exceeding the brief flicker of our own existence, and to conjure the sense of the needed difference that one moment of thought in one lifetime among so many billion human lives can help to create. That is the paradox of our present times and of our personal time on Earth, however. And, as the cards neatly demonstrate, the resolution to the paradox and the key to avoiding a feeling of despair at the sheer scale of the challenge is that we are not alone. Immediately after posing that possibly overwhelming question, the card wisely advises: “For group work we recommend Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects and the book written with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope.” These cards are stepping stones within a much larger landscape and offer us that necessary bridge to action.
Some of that action will be new thinking, questioning, conversation and further reading. Take the cards out again with a new group and see what emerges in your walk together through the woods, along the river, through the city park, beside the coast.
Some of it might be assembling with others — for street action, for political opposition, for culture-changing proposition. Take your appreciation of Deep Time into this present moment of crisis and opportunity.
Some of it might be working alone — creating stories, art, video, music or poems from your encounters with the cards and with the living world, putting the two into dialogue — and then coming together to share these artistic expressions in a public space, a private venue, a platform like ClimateCultures or a new site of your own creation.
Some of it might be devising and organising new walks with others in your communities, using these cards and your previous experiences with them or with the app as a means to simply share space and time and a little breathing room in the world.
Joining the Scientist and the Fool
As the introductory card explains, “We hope the pack empowers others to express Earth’s deep history in a multitude of forms, with the openness to imbue them with meaning to connect hearts and minds across different cultures and traditions.”
Whether you’ve already used the app or have yet to try it, I recommend you also (re)immerse yourself in the story told there by the Scientist and the Fool and introduce it to someone else. How might the two of you retell the journey? What questions arise, and who else might you find to explore them with? The app also works as an audio book for a sedentary journey, though travelling far with your own brain. And the script is now available as a short book. So there are many ways to explore Deep Time ideas and to bring them to life in your encounters with the world and with others. Many ways of thinking through and discovering your next step.
“What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour”
– William Blake
Find out more
The full field kit — app, audiobook CD, script and cards — is available at the Deep Time Walk site. And you can read the ClimateCultures review of the original app, Taking the World for a Walk; the app itself has been updated since then, with a range of new features described here.
Mark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
A copy of Risinggoes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.
Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:
Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.
Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.
These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.
Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”
‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”
Roots, risk and resilience
Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.
Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.
As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:
I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.
Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.
Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.
In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”
In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:
… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.
Passwords for a rising world
It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.
It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…
Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.
Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”
Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”
Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”
Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”
Absence as form
It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.
In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:
“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”
Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”
In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”
Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”
As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”
Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”
Update: In June 2019, Public Books published an Elizabeth Rush interview by Elena Passarello, exploring lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines.
Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
approximate Reading Time: 9minutes
This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Artistic director and performer Paul Michael Henry, who has devised successive UNFIX festivals, discusses his motivation and ambitions for these international gatherings and explorations, ahead of UNFIX 2019 next month. UNFIX: a command form, a verb, an activity.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.