Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands

Artists Andrew Howe and Kim V Goldsmith share the story of their collaborative Mosses and Marshes project, which investigates connections between fragile wetlands and their communities in England and Australia, seeking new interpretations, multiple perspectives and less-heard voices.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


Reimagining the future of fragile wetlands through new contexts and fresh perspectives, while still allowing site specificities and shared commonalities to assert themselves, was the challenge we set ourselves as artists on opposite sides of the globe.

The connection between these landscapes — a lowland peat bog on the border between Wales and North Shropshire in the UK and a seasonally inundated marshland at the tail end of the Macquarie River in central north-west New South Wales, Australia — was made through our collaboration that began when we were paired together in 2018 under the Arts Territory Exchange remote exchange programme initiated by artist/curator Gudrun Filipska in the UK.

We had both worked outside our practices in natural resources and environment sectors for decades, and quickly identified a shared interest in how water and land are managed, in particular in our local but internationally significant wetlands, the Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve (UK) and Macquarie Marshes (Australia). Both sites are rare habitats vital for combating climate change and supporting biodiversity.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla
Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla.
Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith © 2021

The two photos below were taken in 2020 before water arrived in the Marshes after drought (click on images for full size).

Over the next three years, we conducted research and field visits at each site while maintaining an ongoing dialogue, almost entirely by email and digital file-sharing. This informed a series of individual and collaborative artworks. The initial question of what is it that connects us formed an ongoing theme throughout the project, from which sprang many other questions. Taking a holistic approach, we sought new interpretations, multiple perspectives, and less-heard voices in our investigation of these landscapes and how they are valued.

Partnerships and consultation

As the Mosses and Marshes project took shape, we developed partnerships with land managers, environmental scientists, other artists, and local communities. We each secured funding from various sources in Australia and the UK, including a project grant from Arts Council England in 2021 that allowed us to develop a series of arts events, site interventions, community engagement, talks and discussions.

Our aims were to use art to encourage people to build connections with the natural environment, think about human relationships with wetlands, and take part in conversations about the values of wetlands in addressing climate change, biodiversity, water management, as well as some of the less tangible ways, such as cultural and aesthetic values.

In the UK, Andrew partnered with Natural England and Shropshire Wildlife Trust (SWT). Natural England leads the BogLIFE project with Natural Resources Wales and SWT. This six-year project, funded by grants from the EU and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, ends in 2022 with the aim to restore 660 ha of degraded peatland and surrounding peat edge (‘lagg’) back to a functioning, healthy ecosystem. As a separately funded exercise, a derelict former scrapyard on Whixall Moss was purchased by SWT to be cleared and remediated. Over 100 truckloads of waste metals and hazardous materials and around 50,000 tyres were removed from the site.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

On first visit, it can appear that the Mosses are a natural wilderness with few obvious signs of human activity, yet it is the long history of underlying human impact that resonated with both artists as one of the key themes of enquiry in our respective landscapes.

Recognising the importance of past economic and industrial practices, both negatively and positively, needs to sit uncomfortably with our modern aspiration to live in accommodation with Earth’s systems. Providing visual clues of what went on in these wetland places before their reconfigurement is critical in order to remind us of what the Global North is responsible for, what humanity has gained and lost and what more we could lose without more entrenched responses in support of sustainability. 


English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, Mary Geary et al.

Kim’s partnerships took place in less formal ways, engaging local landholders and community members with connections to the Marshes through gathering and mapping audio stories about those connections, contacting scientists and academics to provide background information to issues she was exploring, and more generally connected other artists and communities in the Macquarie-Castlereagh catchment through meetings about the project and formal presentations.

Creative engagement with the mosses and marshes

Mosses and Marshes has resulted in the creation of new artworks and documentation in a range of formats for local, national, and international audiences — online and in physical exhibitions within each site’s catchment. The artworks have included sound and video installation, prints, and paintings using dyes and paper made with natural materials gathered from the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Territory' art by Andrew Howe (handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather)
‘Territory’, Andrew Howe: handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

We sought to work closely with the landscape and reveal sounds and sensory experiences not ordinarily encountered by visitors. These included recordings made of sounds encountered at night time, underwater or from within trees.

At the Mosses, a new self-guided public art trail was created using locative media for an immersive sound trail with temporary sculptural waymarkers along the trail, created by artists Elizabeth Turner and Keith Ashford. The sound trail incorporates work by both of us as co-lead artists, including the collaborative I am Walking spoken soundscape, that places the participant in a walk alongside us in the Mosses, and then into the Marshes. This sound trail, and another created in the nearby town of Wem, include soundscapes based on a range of field recordings and contributions from poets and local community members.

In the UK, community engagement centred around a project with Wem Youth Club in partnership with local artists Sue Challis and Kate Johnston and Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Groups of young people took part in site visits and workshops to create new artworks including three seven-metre-long banners that have subsequently been shown in exhibitions at Wem Town Hall and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. This highly successful project developed a momentum of its own, with evident desire to create long-term impact by helping the young people involved continue to build confidence in, and a sense of ‘ownership’ of, the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Banners on the Moss', art by Wem Youth Club at the Moss
Wem Youth Club at the Moss – Banners on the Moss
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Sustainability, for example, is not a law of the universe – ecosystems change, species come and go. It is instead a human construct, based on value judgements – we want to conserve some biodiversity, but not the Coronavirus. The concept only has meaning when choices are made about what timescale to define and how wide a net of interdependencies to consider. It is consequently as much a cultural matter as it is a scientific one.

Science cannot help with decisions about what meaning to give to any experience in the environment, or how to be reconciled to aspects of the natural world that may be spiritually challenging. Some of the deepest truths are expressible only by poetry or metaphor.

– Dave Pritchard, writing in the Foreword to Mosses and Marshes

The project to date has been documented in the Mosses and Marshes project book, published in October 2021. This publication has allowed us to expand on the themes of research and express thoughts that may not otherwise be evident in the artworks.

Showing the Mosses and Marshes book
‘Mosses and Marshes’ book
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Edited by Dr Liz Charpleix, with a foreword by Dave Pritchard (Ramsar Culture Network, and fellow ClimateCultures member), the Mosses and Marshes book contains contributions from curators Gudrun Filipska (UK) and Jamie-Lea Trindall (Australia), ecological, environmental and cultural writings by Tim Hosking (NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment), First Nations educators and artists Fleur and Laurance Magick Denis of Milan Dhiiyaan and Sooty Welsh (Wayilwan Elder/artist), Cathie Sleigh (Shropshire Wildlife Trust), Robert Duff (Natural England), and many other project partners and people from the communities around the Mosses and Marshes. The book cover features an overlay by Sooty Welsh, titled Walking through Country.

This book is beautifully written and presented, with the clever use of QR codes, that allows the reader to experience through sound and vision this beauty. It encouraged me to further explore the effects of colonisation on this diverse landscape, to the present-day challenges of climate change. Positively thought-provoking and beautiful.

– Natalie Cutler, an interested reader with historical family connections to the Marshes, Sydney Australia

New voices, new stories

The cultural exchange came to a significant meeting point in November 2021, through an international online panel discussion on the topic of ‘Alternative ways of understanding and valuing special environments to help shape their future’. The event brought together a group of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK, all with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. Facilitated by Jessica Moore of Dubbo Regional Council, the panellists included Tim Hosking, Kate Mildner, Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan from Australia, and Dave Pritchard, Dr Tim Acott, and Robert Duff from the UK, who discussed six questions put to them as pre-recorded videos by provocateurs from both countries — all of whom had connections to the wetlands.

From the panel event, it was evident the Mosses and Marshes may be separated by over 10 thousand miles, but many of the issues impacting them are not so different. Land ownership, access to land, and the legacy of Enclosure Acts and colonialism have been lenses through which we’ve been able to look at how the sites have been used for extracting financial value from agriculture and or peat.

Mosses and Marshes - showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes.
Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes, May 2020.

It also created an opportunity for under-represented voices to be heard. The stories of Aboriginal access to the wetlands, shared by Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan, were so important. Speaking powerfully, with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people, Fleur and Laurance referenced missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation, and a fundamental lack of access to Country. It was uncomfortable, but necessary, listening.

What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.

These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It seems like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours.

Mosses and Marshes - showing art by Andrew Howe, 'Fenns Old Works' (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss).
‘Fenns Old Works’ (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss),
Andrew Howe: linocut peat ink © 2021

Complex issues require long-term thinking

The environmental issues of each site do not always present clear-cut solutions, with issues being more nuanced than they first appear. It is also questionable as to whether pragmatic solutions, allowing for as many concerns as possible to be considered, is ultimately best.

On the regulated Macquarie River of New South Wales, there are many competing interests impacting the Macquarie Marshes further downstream. River water supports towns, livestock and domestic users, industry, irrigated agriculture, the environment and recreational users. Taking a pragmatic, top-down approach using one set of established values could result in some wetland areas of the wider Marsh landscape being allowed to become too degraded to conserve. But as Laurance Magick Dennis said during the panel event: “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.

Through our work on the project, we came to understand that wilding is not necessarily a solution on its own without careful human guidance and management, and for that it is vital that local communities have an awareness of the issues, to understand where compromise might be acceptable, in addition to having access and opportunities to develop or regain a sense of ‘ownership’ in the landscape.

At the Mosses, for example, as part of their ongoing work towards restoring the peat bog, Natural England and partners are re-establishing the waterlogged, low nutrient conditions necessary for Sphagnum moss to flourish. However, it is acknowledged that some means of site management may need to continue beyond the BogLIFE project to control the growth of purple moor-grass which rapidly covers the bog surface and inhibits the Sphagnum moss. This is occurring more vigorously due to the increase in air-borne ammoniacal nutrients arising from nearby farms.

From several perspectives, we have identified how the landscapes must be considered in relation to deep time — both in terms of their prehistory and from the viewpoint of future generations. The video developed by Kim for the project’s exhibitions, An Ancient Land: a history of the wetland in chapters, references how Australia’s landscape formed over millions of years came to be explored, surveyed, staked, mapped, named, carved up and farmed by those with the sense and sensibilities of strangers in a foreign land.

Natural England knows that the work they are doing today may not come fully into effect for many centuries to come. So, how can people be encouraged to consider these timescales when the issues of today seem so urgent?

Unfinished work

The Mosses and Marshes project has broadened local, national and international recognition of these wetlands and their cultural and environmental importance. It has provided a platform from which to develop further artist residencies and projects involving the arts linked to the wetlands. We strongly believe our international exchange has created new contexts for each site that considers some of those intangible values previously overlooked, and it has started to bring fresh perspectives to the fore while recognising localised differences between our two wetlands.

New presentations of our creative work open in the Australian capital at M16 Artspace in Canberra, in April 2022, and at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, in May. A programme of public events will continue in both the UK and Australia. The project is also entering a new phase we’ve called Values. Voices. Action., which follows up some of the key issues raised in the discussion panel. Those first tentative questions we asked ourselves back in 2018 have led to a range of actions that have given agency to a multitude of voices now invigorating this evolving project.


Find out more

The Mosses and Marshes book is available at both artists’ websites, with northern hemisphere sales handled by Andrew and southern hemisphere by Kim: Of the Mosses – Andrew Howe & EcoPULSE – Kim V. Goldsmith

The exhibition at M16 Artspace in Canberra, Australia ran to 1st May, and then at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, until 3rd June.

Kim V. Goldsmith (in Australia) and Andrew Howe (in the UK) began working together in 2018, having been paired together through the Arts Territory Exchange remote collaboration programme. Both the artists conducted research and on-site work in their respective wetlands that informed the creation of a series of individual and collaborative artworks for exhibitions in the UK and Australia under the title Mosses and Marshes.

Kim is an environmental artist and content producer based in the Central West of NSW, Australia. She has 30 years’ experience working across rural and regional Australia in media and marketing communications. As an artist, Kim has a keen interest in the environment and sustainable regional futures that she explores through a range of digital media and writing.

Kim acknowledges and respects the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which she works and lives.

Andrew is an interdisciplinary artist and project manager, based in Shrewsbury, working solo and in collaboration with other practitioners and community groups. He uses walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, informed by over 30 years’ experience in engineering and environmental consulting. His practice includes painting, collage, photography, printmaking, books, and digital media.

You can read Andrew’s earlier post for ClimateCultures, A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13, where his objects include a bitumen spill from an old tanker on the former industrial land at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve.

English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, edited by Mary Gearey, Andrew Church & Neil Ravenscroft (2020) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

You can read about the Marches Mosses BogLIFE project at Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserves and Wem Moss Nature Reserve at the Marches Mosses BogLIFE website.

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.
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Kim Goldsmith

Kim Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.
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Unfolding Stories from the Anthropocene and Beyond

Artist Ivilina Kouneva draws on her seaside walks and art-making, on tales of indigenous story sharing and experiences of others’ creativity to make imaginative links between our heritage as storytelling animals and remaking connections between past and future.


1,610 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


On the way to my art studio, I can either choose the short five-minute walk or, continue down the road till I reach the seafront, turn right, walk on the shingled beach and then up the road. I usually choose the latter.

I consider myself privileged to live by the sea, on the East Sussex Coast, for at least the past seven years. The horizontal lines and the constant changes of tidal levels, cloud formations, wind directions make me feel alive, part of a bigger picture. I usually try to focus on sounds and forms, to be fully present in the moment, but stories keep coming and going through my head. As Gregory Norminton says in his book The Ship of Fools, “every story is like a bell jar thrown into a rocky lake; it closes in its eye a roaring world, and doesn’t even know of the Universe outside; the planets spin in their orbits, stories happen without us even knowing, but still, if we turn our backs on them, they won’t stop happening.”

Water is a powerful element, loaded with meanings. The seas and oceans are the natural places for living creatures to migrate and communicate. However, they can be seen as a destructive power, a threat: tsunami, coastal erosion, flooding, the Great Flood. Water is the cradle of the world’s mythology, reservoir of stories.

We are ‘storytelling animals’. I came upon this description in Annika Arnold’s book Climate Change and Storytelling: Narrative and cultural meaning in environmental communication. What part does the storytelling play for people’s perception of the risk of climate change, related to Global Warming? When I think of climate change my first concern is for communities and the impact on their lives. Analysing my own understanding of what life stands for I realise that, for me, it is something beyond just existence and just being. It is peoples’ rituals and beliefs, often expressed and recognised through artisan objects and the process of art-making. Life, in its wholesome greatness, is full of creativity, visualisation, music, words, language. This is where nature interweaves powerfully with its rhythms and changes throughout.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I started a series of works under the title of ‘Fragile Balances’. They were born from the pure sensitivity of an artist who acknowledges the complexity of voices and narratives, the labyrinths of experiences coming from different places around the planet. At this stage I relied heavily on books and my imagination. Magic realism literature armed me with tools for mental survival and the ability to think of our world as an enormous “garden of forking paths” (Jorge Luis Borges). Unfolding a story within another story, while connecting events from the past with our current endeavours, sustains my creative practice.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Forking Paths', paper cuts collage
‘Forking Paths’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2020

Storytelling – connection to the mystery of the unknown

I am walking along the shingled beach thinking of an event that took place during COP26 in Glasgow. My daughters, environmentally sensitive thinkers and activists, told me about the series of Minga Indigena story sharing. Before jumping to check it out and do further research online, for weeks I left myself relying only on their emotional description of kindness, openness and difference in thinking that they had witnessed. I let myself imagine it was staged in Victorian times. I saw the healer from Amazonia with spiritual drawings on his arms. I felt his natural emotional intelligence, his attempt to transcribe his beliefs and connection with nature to the bewildered audience.

I just wish I were there and could hear him saying that if we got lost in the jungle he would be there for us, but we might not recognise him as he would be the jaguar, and we should hold on to the jaguar’s tail. The immediate questions arising were: What have we done for the past 150 years? and Have we really changed? It made me think how detached and sterile our social media-obsessed world could be at moments — with the result that we find ourselves cut off from the mystery of the unknown and therefore, from all things that are not easy to articulate. However, like the stories, the unknown is out there, forming a large part of the pulsing, living systems on our planet.

Then I found an interesting relation between the Minga Indigena event and two of my paper cuts collages created in the middle of the first lockdown. My artworks were inspired and dedicated to the communities that inhabit indigenous islands. With vibrant colours and ornaments, they were made to resemble old manuscripts, imagined groups of people engaged in their everyday activities who dwell on strips of land, narrow boats, fragile wooden supports. The artworks were selected for the virtual exhibition initiated by Sweet’Art, London – The Great Leveller. There, visual artists shared their experiences as well as hopes through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Paradise in Danger' paper cuts collage
‘Paradise in Danger’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Rooted in stories already told

Walking along the shingled beach and listening to my steps, the stories emerge from one another, with labyrinth-like pathways and unexpected turns. In the world of constant change “safety by all circumstances is an illusion”, as British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington had once said. Blurred edges and uncertain boundaries, structures with multilayered contexts might be the reality of our future.

While listening to Jocelyn Pook’s Flood with its sounds of dripping water, where Balkan folklore beautifully interweaves with spiritual singing, an exhibition at Cisternerne in Copenhagen came to my mind. In March 2019 I visited Copenhagen, a place also defined by water through its ragged topography with many canals. A devoted art gallery trotter, I went to see the underground exhibition rooms at Cisternerne, a former water reservoir, where the creative trio Superflux made their massive statement about climate change.

For ‘It is Not the End of the World’ they had flooded the gloomy catacombs with knee-deep water, imagining an apocalyptic scenario when “Humanity has come to an end”. Deeply moved I then wrote: “… it is not an attractive or beautiful (in a traditional way), or a good-for-taking pictures show (and shamefully we still do it)… So put a pair of rubber boots on, and brave your way through the cold darkness of could-be-your- future.”

I have always been inspired by how creative minds through time and space may pick similar ideas and inspirations. One might imagine such minds are all a family across time, where your stories would be heard and accepted. Communication is a multi-layered phenomenon (as Annika Arnold explains in her book). It is not a linear process and it is important at all levels. The messages we get through storytelling are essential for us, beings brought up with stories. Through narratives, we better understand our lives and where we stand.

My work is rooted in the chain of stories “that somebody else has already told”, as Umberto Eco’s noted in his podcast for ‘In the Name of Rose’. My artworks expand ideas and themes from my previous projects, about a complex world in need of balance. Water has a powerful presence as well as a variety of symbols, pin-up images from our collective memory and mythology. Decades ago I discovered the Irish-born American professor of relative mythology Joseph Campbell. What I got from his works was the firm belief that traditions and rituals for all communities gravitate around similar essential values. Before these Anthropocene times, people followed the rhythm of nature and their rituals were closely connected to its changes. Through my work I look for relevance between past and present, creating links among stories and events from different time realities. I blur the edges to challenge the imagination and provoke curiosity to archetypal models and stories from the past.

At least back then the Noah family had a solution for the Great Flood – they built an Ark.

I keep walking along the beach.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Sea Levels' oil and acrylics on canvas
‘Sea Levels’, oil and acrylics on canvas
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Find out more

Climate Change and Story Telling: Narrative and Cultural Meaning in Environmental Communication by Annika Arnold (2018) is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Minga Indigena is a collective of groups, organizations and communities from indigenous nations throughout Abya Yala (the American continent). Minga is the coming together of people when there is a calling. “The leaders of Indigenous Minga come from the highest communities in the Andes, the deepest forests of the Amazon, the islands farthest away from the continents, the driest desert in the world, the northernmost territory in Alaska and the largest reserves of water in southern Patagonia. They come to help humanity remember what it is to be ‘human’ and to invite them to join the cause for climate and biocultural diversity from a new perspective.” Minga Indígena has participated in the COPs since Rio + 20 in 2012, including Paris, Cancun, Peru, Madrid and Glasgow. You can view their presentation at COP26 here.

Narrating Landscapes: How Indigenous Storytelling Can Unlock Our Environment’s Past, at Columbia ClimateSchool’s GlacierHub blog (2/9/21) relates a better understanding of indigenous knowledge can help create links that improve our understanding of our changing climate. “This method of storytelling doesn’t always conform to scientific approaches that seek to dissect and isolate information; instead, it is an integrated wealth of information that draws from years of coexisting with the landscape a tribe inhabits. Western data-gathering rendered this knowledge static, contradicting the essential living quality of storytelling.”

Ivilina Kouneva

Ivilina Kouneva

An artist using painting and cut-out compositions to deepen understanding of the fragility of life in current times, and working with communities to 'de-pollute' our minds ...
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Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.


1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.

***

Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.


Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

A researcher and curator of activist art, personally specialising in climate communication within the Anthropocene to draw attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.
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Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature

Ecopoet Helen Moore shares the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in a world that’s become unconscious of humanity’s interdependence with all beings through the web of life.


1,900 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Recently I’ve begun to contemplate and explain what I mean by ‘wild writing’, which is such a fundamental part of my ecopoetic practice. I want to share how I go about it and how it keeps me well and resilient to the deep challenges of staying conscious in a world that is consistently leading humans to remain unconscious. In reflecting on my many years practising it, I’ve come to see how it helps me to get in touch with what I call my ‘humanimal’ nature — the embodied awareness that recognises my interdependence with all beings through the web of life. And ultimately puts me in touch with the Divine within myself and all beings.

A subtle imprint

Showing Wild Garlic by Helen Moore: inspiring wild writing
Wild Garlic
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

Not all ecopoetry is wild writing, and it can of course also be expressed in prose. But the following piece is inspired by foraging for one of my favourite foods, Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons. It also expresses the phenomenon that I’ve come to name ‘green drift’, which is the subtle imprint that time in green spaces — whether foraging, gardening, walking or meditating — can endow us with.

Green Drift

“There is no force in the world but love.” – Rilke

Crawling into bed like a peasant,
with mud-grained feet, soil under the nails
of my toes – but too tired to care –
the heaviness of the day’s exertions draws

my body downward – each muscle and bone
finding its bliss – and I close my eyes
on a green panorama, shades of every
nuance, the contours of leaves in high

definition. A film encoded on the visual cortex,
I observe again those lanceolate shapes, the forage silk
which slipped between our fingers and thumbs
(still redolent with that Ramson scent),

the mounding herbage that we plucked, 
backs bent as in a Van Gogh study.
Behind my eyelids, vernal waves rise and fall,
hymn of this community to which my senses flock –

ancient rite of magnetic birds, Dionysus riding me,
greens rushing on the inside of my eyelids, 
mosaics of foliage, fingers ablaze with Nettle stings,
soles still alive to the narrow woodland path,

its vertebrae of roots, pad of compressed earth.
High on Spring, I’m a biophile 
and incurable; nor would I care for any cure –
would only be a node in Great Mother’s body

where, drifting into the canopy of sleep, I see foliar veins 
close-up – illumined as if by angels – 
feel the breathing of stomata. Then, like a drunken Bee,
I surrender to this divine inebriation.

From Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, Helen Moore (Shearsman Books, 2012).

Helen adds: "Names of more-than-human beings are capitalised to raise their status from the margins to which industrialised culture has relegated them."

The wild is everywhere

That erotic/ecstatic possession by wild Nature and the resulting dissolution of the ego, as I connect with my higher Self, which is an expression of the Divine, is the ultimate state to which my wild writing practice can bring me. In this state I feel in every cell of my body that I too am wild Nature, and that I’m powerful beyond measure. That I too can co-create with all life.

Given that this practice emerges from the wilder aspects of my consciousness, how do I go about accessing this extraordinary state of mind? Fundamentally it requires carving out regular space in my schedule to get away from the digital/virtual world. To take solo time in Nature. To nourish body/mind/spirit and deepen my connection with other-than-human Nature from which inspiration and creativity flow. I don’t necessarily need to seek out places that might typically be defined as ‘wild’. The wild is everywhere, occurs even in our local park/garden/school playing fields/cracks in the pavement.

Nevertheless, as Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth, the ordinary, conditioned mind is more comfortable in green spaces such as a landscaped park “because it has been planned through thought”. Whereas “in the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.” Here we can no longer differentiate between “life (good) and death (bad) … since everywhere new life grows out of rotting and decaying matter.” Stilling the mind, we can then start to perceive “sacredness, a hidden order in which everything has its perfect place, and our own non-separation from this.”

Showing Great Mullein, by Helen Moore - co-creation and wild writing
Great Mullein
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

My wild writing practice is also about holding an intention: what does life want to show me today? In approaching it this way, I find that I tend to experience magical encounters that lift my spirits, bring joy, inspire. Going out on a wild writing adventure, I find it’s important to see the time I give it as ‘sacred’. It’s a period of time, two, three, four hours perhaps, for nurturing soul and the ensouled world. Ideally, I will cross a threshold (which might be a garden or park gate, a path to a beach or forest) in order to mark the transition into it. And having entered into this space, I will avoid conversations with other humans and open up my senses to the other-than-human world.

I never start with writing, just begin by walking, slowing my pace, letting any mental chatter subside. I let my body soften, my senses receive information such as the breeze on my skin, scents in the air, taste, sounds near and far, and visual aspects such as colours, shapes, patterns. At the same time, I watch what is at the edge of my consciousness, breathing it in and out, honouring any uncomfortable feelings, breathing them in and out. I avoid getting attached to any of those thoughts, or letting myself build them into narratives, and instead keep returning my attention to the present moment.

I also practise the Five Ways of Knowing, which Bill Plotkin advocates in Soulcraft. These are sensing (with all five senses), feeling, intuiting, imagining and thinking. Valuing these additional ways of knowing helps to balance out the dominant rational mind and allows me to become more receptive to the multiple wild voices and natural sign languages that are usually so ignored in our culture.

And I connect with the elements, the weather, darkness/light, rhythms of growth, abundance and decay, and notice what these may mirror within. Observing dead wood riddled with insect holes and fungus, I may see what needs to fall away from my life, what needs to be composted, as I deepen my understanding of impermanence.

Wild writing & co-creative nature

Through these acts of paying close attention, and then finding language, imagery and form to reflect my experiences, I’m engaging in wild writing. However, that process of finding language is often tentative, provisional. My experiences may be difficult to communicate, and so at first I’m simply ‘splurging’, forgetting grammar, spelling, punctuation. Just getting words down in my notebook. Sometimes the seed of a poem or story is found later in just a few words of that splurge, a phrase that has a certain ‘energy’ that I want to explore further.

Wild writing fundamentally requires me to practise non-judgement — at least in the initial phase, when I allow everything in. Later I can practise the discernment of the editorial eye, but initially I try to be open to including all of my experience, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. To keep including in my awareness the co-creative aspect of what I’m doing.

In our culture we’re conditioned to think of the act of creation as happening almost in a vacuum. We’ve come to think of the creative ‘genius’ working in isolation — traditionally a white, male figure, possibly inspired by a female muse. However, everything happens as a co-creation in Nature. A tree does not grow on its own, but responds to light, soil, water, weather, insects. It interacts with other trees through mycorrhizal relationships. Trees are also home to birds, creatures, insects, all of whom may have a symbiotic relationship with the tree. A bird might find its home in the tree’s branches, eat its berries, benefitting from this food source, and then pooping out the seeds, thereby disseminating them.

Showing Clouded Yellow, by Helen Moore
Clouded Yellow
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

This shows that co-creation is at the heart of all experience. All beings are infinitely connected through the web of life, the ecosystems and communities we inhabit. Our co-creation as humans is with other writers and teachers who inspire us, and with the other-than-human as an interspecies experience. It may also involve consciously working with the Universe, the Divine, Spirit, Oneness, God, Allah — however we may call it.

This co-creation can come about through inspiration, and of course the word ‘inspire’ connects us with the breath, the air we share with all beings. It is the insights, ideas, sudden intuitions which we ‘breathe in’. And which we then ‘breathe into’ others when we inspire them.

In my experience, regularly practising wild writing helps me to remain more attuned to my wild self, even when I return to the more domesticated realm of home, cafes, library, bars, shops. Steadily becoming more capable of expressing this essential aspect of myself seems to build my resilience to face the challenges of being human in the 21st century, to embrace the crises we face as opportunities for greater healing and positive transformation of our world. It also helps me to understand that I’m never alone — even if I’m experiencing social isolation, wild beings are wonderful companions and teachers.

Helen Moore at Timber Festival, July 2021
Photograph: Mark Simmons © 2021

Find out more

Helen’s post is based on a Zoom talk she gave recently to Bristol Climate Writers, an active group that writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry about climate change and the environment, and which includes many other ClimateCultures members. You can find out more about the group’s work through two posts BCW members wrote for ClimateCultures: Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’, and Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change.

Helen’s collection Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (2012), is published by Shearsman BooksAnd ECOZOA (2015), which is published by Permanent Publications, has been acclaimed by Australian poet John Kinsella, as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics”. On Helen’s website, via her ClimateCultures profile, you can listen to readings of her poem Findhorn Bay, Waves of Flow & Flight, watch her poetry films, explore her collections, and find out about her online Wild Ways to Writing mentoring programme and her current project collaborating on a cross arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.

Helen is one of the judges for Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, a new writing competition from XR Wordsmiths, a collective of writers deeply concerned with the climate and ecological emergency facing us all and part of Extinction Rebellion. The competition aims “to use our collective imagination as a tool against the climate and ecological emergency. Imagination unlocks the impossible and releases it into the realm of ‘possible’.” It is open now until 14th September 2021 — and our next ClimateCultures blog post will explore the thinking behind it from the perspective of one of our newest members, also a member of XR Wordsmiths.

Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth (2009) is published by Penguin.

Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (2003) is published by New World Library

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.
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Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.