Living (and Composing) in the Anthropocene

Composer Stanley Grill shares his Music for the Earth project and how his feelings about climate change have a way of turning into music evoking connections with the natural world and our obligation to be caretakers, not destroyers.


1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes 


By nature, I’m a loner and a contemplative – not an activist. By practice, I’m a composer – and music has, since childhood, been a source of solace and a world more real to me than the world of people and all of their strange beliefs that strike me, by and large, as entirely unhinged from reality. I am not a religious person, but inclined to believe that most of the stories people tell themselves to explain the world are fantastical illusions.

The view of mankind as a unique species somehow granted dominion over the Earth, a view held by many of the world’s dominant religions, seems evidently false – an example of humanity’s limitless hubris and nothing more. It seems to me that for the entirety of our existence on Earth, we have told ourselves such stories in order to silence the sheer terror that comes with an awareness of our insignificance. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke said it best and most poignantly when he wrote, in the opening lines of the first of his Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’ Orders? And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure, and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terrifying.”

Music for the Anthropocene
Angel, Cemetery Marseille, Provence, France
(www.flickr.com/photos/x1klima/28040991569 CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dating back to the very beginnings of human civilizations, our primary driver seems to have been the desire to subdue the terrors of that great Angel, the Earth, with its (incomprehensible in their vastness) forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and wild beasts. As our skills with technology grew, we walled ourselves in, we paved over the ground, we burned or hacked away at forest and jungle, we wantonly destroyed creatures we feared, and worst of all, abandoned our elemental connection to the Earth and its bounties, perceiving ourselves as somehow separate and apart from (and superior to) the myriad living creatures with whom we share the planet.

Our exact trajectory along that path is largely unrecorded and lost. What role did we play in the destruction of many long-extinct species as our species spread across the globe? How many once flourishing habitats did we transform into barren desert? Wreaking environmental havoc is not something new for us – it is a very ancient habit. Our relatively recent recognition of our role in climate change – and the fact that we’ve coined a new name for it – doesn’t change our past. We’ve always done this, even if the full extent of our impact on the planet is far from understood, remaining, perhaps forever, unknowably lost to time. The Anthropocene started a very long time ago.

The connectedness of everything

While our need to tinker with the world without comprehending the consequences and ripple effects of our actions has been in our DNA from the start, the speed of those ripples has grown exponentially in the past century, exacerbated by vast increases in our numbers and our technological capabilities. It was only recently that I learned about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of all too many examples of overly confident people setting out, perhaps with good intent, to change one thing, without having a clue as to the consequences. The connectedness of everything was understood, to some extent, by at least a minority of people since the beginning of time, but lost time and again. And occasionally rediscovered.

While his books may now collect dust in libraries, Alexander von Humboldt discovered it for himself in the late 18th century, writing that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” becoming perhaps the first explorer with a modern scientific outlook to acknowledge and document human-induced climate change. Those who tinkered with the Aral Sea would, one wants to hope, have thought better of their plans if they had read some of Humboldt’s books describing the impacts of deforestation he witnessed during his journey through South America. But, perhaps not, especially if profit is the driving motivation.

As I write this, struggling to frame out my thoughts, trying to piece together into a coherent whole the bits and pieces I’ve picked up without any organized study over the years, I always wind up face to face with the reality that, as bleak as our prospects may look from today’s vantage point, I am entirely powerless to do anything about it. For sure, all of this was beyond my ken as I was growing up. The inventions of our age all seemed so exciting and the future so filled with promise. Looking back, the repercussions of our actions seem evident, but then, we are all far more ignorant and stupid than we ever think we are. But, one fact stands out – the planet and the life on it is all one interconnected web and we tug and pull or tear any strand of it at our peril.

“Endangered World: Life Wall” by Xavier Cortada (CC BY 2.0)

Music for the Earth

Which brings me around to where I started. Whatever my feelings and thoughts are about this subject don’t really matter much. I can do little or nothing about it. But I am a composer – and while notes and ideas have little intrinsic connection, my feelings about climate change and the bleak future we’re careening towards at an ever more rapid pace do have a way of turning into music. We humans have always told ourselves stories to explain what we don’t understand or can’t control – and, guilty as charged, I tell myself stories for the same reasons.

I started a Music for the Earth series a few years ago, with the idea that perhaps, through music, I could have some small influence on any who heard it. Putting small black dots on paper that transform into vibrations in the air might serve to evoke in others a feeling of connection with the natural world and of our obligation to be caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the life that everywhere surrounds us. A story I tell myself…

Over the past several years, the series has grown – and more recently, I’ve started to get the music recorded. And I’ve created videos, either on my own or in collaboration with others, with music from Music for the Earth. These include Canciones de la Tierra, settings for mezzo soprano and viola of seven bucolic poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about the Andalusian landscapes that so inspired him. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Lorca’s poetry in connection with my thoughts about climate change and, more particularly, with my conviction that a corollary to our disconnectedness from the natural world is the ease with which we accept environmental catastrophe and human-caused mass extinctions without feeling a deep sense of shame and loss.

Lorca’s poetic and passionate essay The Theory and Play of Duende often comes to my mind when composing music. “The duende … Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”

We cannot really feel unless we are elementally connected to the life of the Earth. And, the corollary to this is that we will be unable to change our relationship with the Earth and all of the life on it unless we understand and feel duende. For Lorca, the spirit of duende was to be found in the Andalusian countryside, and so I turned to his poems of Andalusia for Canciones de la Tierra.

“Remember, you are this universe…”

Remember is a video collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mariko Endo (previously showcased on ClimateCultures) with music for viola and piano, intermezzi with themes inspired by poems of the Earth. The music in this video comes from the fifth and final intermezzo in my composition Remember – which is based on a song from my The Whirr of Wings composition – to a poem of the same title by poet laureate Joy Harjo: “Remember, you are this universe and this universe is you.”

Sea & Sky, for two violas, is a collaboration with violist Brett Deubner, the music inspired by and composed on walks along Cape Cod bay.

And, for the future, time and resource availability permitting, will be recordings of Gaia’s Lament for violin & orchestra, Gaia’s Song for piano and orchestra, Ode to Thea and Sulla Natura for string quartet, The Whirr of Wings for chorus, flute, viola and cello, and A Single Thorn for soprano, French horns and string orchestra, setting poems by Canadian poet Meg Freer.

Best wishes for a greener planet. 

And for any reading this, musicians or not, if curious about the Music for the Earth project, do browse through my website and, even better, if any others active in ClimateCultures want to collaborate on a project, please reach out. We can tell that story together.


Find out more

You can explore more of Stanley’s Music for the Earth and other projects at his site and his YouTube channel, and two of his works have featured in the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase: Remember, mentioned above, and Ahimsa.

You can find out more about Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in this piece by Maria Popova at The Marginalian, Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections – a review of the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

And you can read about the disappearance of the Aral Sea in this 2021 piece on The Meaning of Water site, The Aral Sea — More Than a Lake Is Disappearing…

To explore the poems that Stanley has quoted from and which have inspired his work, visit:

The image “Endangered World: Life Wall” shows the work created by artist Xavier Cortada. “Cortada created “Endangered World: Life Wall” using 360 red bricks along with stones deposited in the Netherlands by glacial forces during the last ice age. The work is a 2.1m x 8.5m wall created near the nation’s largest neolithic gravesite at the Hunebed Center in Borger. The 360 bricks represent 360 animals struggling for survival across 360 degrees. On each brick, Cortada painted the longitude where each animal lives. When a species dies out, the number is painted black. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes humans. How many bricks can be removed before the wall of life comes tumbling down?” You can explore Cortada’s work at cortada.com.

Stanley Grill

Stanley Grill

A composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.
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Grasping the Intangible — Our Climate Change Predicament

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Change, Mike Hulme’s book exploring how the idea of climate change is shaped and used in different ways and how its meanings help us navigate climate change as predicament rather than problem.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


“Climate change is an idea of such size, scope, and imaginative power that it escapes the capacity of any one person to grasp and for political institutions to resolve.”

The very first words in Mike Hulme’s climate book are “Not another climate book!” We’ve all read (or read about) so many different works, from the IPCC’s periodic reviews of the state of our scientific knowledge through to the polemical treatises for one solution or another. Contextualising his own book alongside some of these — the popular guides “developed for specific audiences —  ‘dummies’, children, planners, or environmental lawyers — and innumerable ‘short introductions’,” Hulme doesn’t neglect the work of creative writers, mentioning both the increasing volume of literary and genre fiction and its academic coverage. So-called Cli-Fi has rapidly become so well established that by 2018 it already needed a volume called Cli-Fi: A Companion.

So Hulme rightly asks “What more possibly is there to add?”, and his response convincingly adds up to: ‘quite a lot’. Or, maybe, ‘everything’, because we’ll never run out of things to say about the subject. “Climate change is not ‘over’,” he reminds us: neither in the science that underpins our knowledge, nor in coming to terms with what it means for us and our current cohabitants on the planet and its future travellers; and not in the sense of being encompassed or contained within any one field of knowledge. “There is a ‘further beyond’,” he tells us: “Plus Ultra, the epigraph engraved by Spanish grandees on the Pillars of Hercules at the Straits of Gibraltar at the turn of the sixteenth century.” By analogy, collectively we’re all in the straits now, at the beginning of a new age of human experiences of what the world is becoming and what it means to be human within it. And so there will always be a need for new guides and their challenges to the multiple ways we have of grasping, and failing to grasp, these questions.

Climate change is best regarded not as a problem needing a solution but as a predicament. In contrast to problems, predicaments “can neither be solved through engineering nor resolved through politics. A predicament just won’t go away. What predicaments need,” Hulme suggests, “are stories. Interpretive stories — what some may call guiding myths — through which to understand the predicament and to come to terms with it.” Which doesn’t mean just accepting it, standing still. The stories we tell about our predicaments are ways to find our way through a shifting landscape, in ways that seek, sustain and generate hope. “To live with it — but also to move on.” 

“It is possible to use the idea of climate change creatively to bring about desirable change in the world without remaining hostage to the impossible dream of subjecting the condition of global climate to human will.”

Exploring the idea of climate change: showing the cover of Mike Hulme's book, Climate Change (2022)
‘Climate Change’ by Mike Hulme – exploring an idea.
Cover image: Dehlia Hannah © 2022

Geography — Mike Hulme’s own field of knowledge — is a useful discipline from which to start out, taking in its own traditions of both physical and human sciences and offering space to incorporate and adapt insights from many other disciplines. Both in the main text and in many informative and illustrative vignettes throughout, this book draws on what science historians, social anthropologists, environmental economists, political ecologists, indigenous activists, geohumanities and literary scholars, sociologists, and a range of sub-disciplinary and interdisciplinary geographers have to say about climate change. At the same time, Hulme admits this is a very different book to any that researchers from any of those disciplines might offer, or even other geographers from other cultures. It’s the partial and provisional nature of our knowledge that he emphasises. Knowledge, made through scientific or other practices, occurs in particular settings, from where “it moves between people and travels between places.”

“Climate change has today become a synecdoche – it ‘stands in’ – for the status and prospects of people’s changing material, social, and cultural worlds. And these worlds are always in the making … the meaning of climate change is never fixed, nor can it ever be exhausted.”

This book has as its focus our ideas of climate change, and how those ideas have been expressed in different times and cultures, shifting and mutating as they move between them, never settling forever. Climate change “becomes an idea used to different ends.”

The earlier sections provide historical-geographical perspectives through lenses of culture and science — especially cultures of science practised by empires, superpowers and global institutions that have constructed, expanded but also contained our understanding — to become a focus of public concern, debate and mobilisation. The relationships between public and expert understandings are critical to how debates, media coverage and shaping of policy all play out and affect each other. In the middle sections, Hulme sets out different positions within two broad camps, ‘science-based’ approaches on the one hand and ‘more-than-science’ ones on the other. A crude distinction, but “a helpful device for exposing how the idea of climate change becomes imbued with multiple meanings across diverse social formations”. Finally, he discusses the future: the ways it’s being imagined now and how different understandings of climate change are trying to direct our attention to making the ‘right’ future happen. We all have positions to take and world views at stake as we try to steer the planet into one future and away from others. What ideas of climate change will come to dominate?

Between facts and meanings

What does climate change mean? Hulme suggests that broadly ‘science-based’ meanings are espoused in ‘reformed modernism’, ‘sceptical contrarianism’ and ‘transformative radicalism’. Respectively, these seek to assimilate climate change into projects of progressive technological and political development; to contest the nature or significance of climate change as a ‘thing’; or to mobilise it as a vehicle for profound social change. And in the equally expansive territories of ‘more-than-science’ positions are ‘subaltern voices’, ‘artistic creativities’ and ‘religious engagements’. These seek to supplant or speak back to the dominant scientised narrative, to reimagine it, or transcend it. One of many ‘subaltern voices’ he references is the ‘trickster’ figure — for example, represented in North Pacific cultures in Raven — that “acts as a mirror for humanity by reflecting people’s relations with the environment. Raven challenges the illusion of control that is promised by scientific knowledge and geoengineering technologies.”

Whether “getting the science right’ is the fundamental prerequisite to policy, as each of the first three otherwise differing positions assert, or we hold that science alone cannot define our knowledge and we can foreground other forms of lived or derived environmental knowledge, the meanings these six positions enact are continually constructed, sustained and deployed in our various discourses. As Hulme points out, “actions are not determined by the facts in themselves”; our choices are guided by interpretations of facts. This is why understanding the different meanings we and others attribute to our changing climate is an important early step, although not an easy one.

“How do people make sense of something that on the one hand is both physically and discursively unavoidable in the contemporary world, but that – at the same time – exceeds human ease and the imagination? Earth system scientists and literary critics alike grasp at the intangibility of climate change.”

They grasp in different ways, and each is important. Exploring creative approaches and listening to marginalised voices can offer ways to make the abstract particular where scientific knowledge-making, of necessity, strives to derive global, abstract truths from the overabundance of specifics that the natural world presents us with. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project like ClimateCultures, the second half of Hulme’s book resonates most strongly, for all the value of the earlier, clear accounts of dominant (although fiercely competing) ‘science-based’ positions on climate change. We need to go ‘further beyond’, while maintaining a commitment to data building, knowledge construction and world modelling, if we are to grasp the many meanings of climate change and the responses we can best enact. At the very least, we need to see that scientific knowledge itself travels and translates as it moves among different places, people and processes of making sense of change.

Subaltern voices and the idea of climate change: showing The Raven, a trickster figure.
Subaltern voice – Raven as Trickster, challenging the illusion of control. Image used in Mike Hulme’s ‘Climate Change’.
Artist: © Glen Rabena https://www.glenrabena.com/

“What climate change means locally is not simply the result of downscaling global kinds of knowledge” for, as global climate science rubs up against local subjectivities, the multiple resists becoming singular. The three broad approaches Hulme outlines as ‘more-than-science’ have much to offer as we come to terms with, celebrate and harness the “mobility and the mutability of the idea of climate change.” And these multiple voices and ways of knowing merit being listened to on their own terms, rather than merely as an attempt to ‘improve’ data and modelling.

“If science is de-centred from accounts of climate change … then different possibilities open up for identifying the underlying causes, challenges, responses, and solutions to climate change. Resisting the assumption, instinctively made by scientists, that climate change is all about molecules of carbon dioxide, global carbon budgets, modelled predictions of future climate impacts, or even about local weather extremes, makes it possible to supplant the idea of climate change using very different assumptions.”

Governing the idea of climate change

As we move into the latest global negotiations at COP27 and reflect back on the milestones (or fractions of miles) of the previous COPs, it’s worth reflecting on the concluding section of Hulme’s book, Climate change to come. The first chapter here addresses the thorny question of governing the climate and the proliferation of actors involved. For 1988’s UN General Assembly resolution, which led the way for the Framework Convention at the 1992 Earth Summit, and thus the 2007 Kyoto Protocol and 2015’s Paris Agreement, climate change was “to be regarded as a pathological condition of modernity that threatened ‘the heritage of mankind’.”

As the global regime has developed, so too the regional, national and sectoral interests that translate, advocate for and supervise what and how policies are implemented. The “agents of climate governance” now reach well beyond formal, global institutions, taking in “building inspectors, venture capitalists, media producers, trades unionists, monks, aviation authorities, professional sports clubs, farming extension officers, public celebrities, and national energy regulators.” Every kind of human activity affects the climate, and is affected by ideas of climate change. And so the annual COP attracts more and more participants, observers and influencers.

It’s not the climate itself that’s being governed here, of course, but the regulation of human technologies, behaviours and mechanisms to mitigate the causes of climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. Hulme investigates and summarises these approaches to governance, including state-centric and polycentric models: the use of standards and certification, carbon markets, citizens’ assemblies, judicial courts and ‘climate services’ such as the ‘Forecast in Context Map Room’ tool developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for decision-making in disasters.

“[G]lobal temperature is not an entity that is directly tractable to intentional human action. Governing temperature therefore requires governing the full range of human activities and technologies … and the imaginations that give rise to them… Governing global climate therefore becomes an exercise in governing the collective of human societies but where the power to do so exists in no central or identifiable location.”

A technosocial idea of climate change: showing a screen shot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool
Screenshot of the IRI-IFRC Forecast in Context Tool illustrating where exceptionally heavy rainfall is expected.
Source: ‘Climate services for society: origins, institutional arrangements, and design elements for an evaluation framework’, Catherine Vaughan & Suraje Dessai (May 2014)

Given climate governance’s “totalising reach”, as Hulme identifies it, paradoxically perhaps it’s a profound relief as well as an insurmountable obstacle that no human institutions can ever have the global power to understand, decide and dictate the scale and scope of response that’s needed. There is no governing ‘matrix’. As Hulme says, “far from … vision[s] of a coordinated and intelligent Earth System Governance framework, a more plausible metaphor for climate governance is that of a clumsy multilayered meshwork of overlapping and competing competences and interests.”

Climate imaginaries

Hulme finally moves to the realm of realist and speculative imaginaries of the climate to come and how “events that have not yet happened in reality, happen in the imagination.” As such, now as in history, “future climate imaginaries wield extraordinary power over the present.” He reminds us of the totalitarian party diktat in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four — “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past” — and suggests that with respect to climate change, Orwell’s aphorism might come full circle: “Who controls the future, controls the present”. In this light, the “hopeful imagery offered up in the Paris Agreement”, of a global future climate to be kept under 1.5o to 2.0oC above pre-industrial levels is an especially powerful future narrative attempting to motivate and constrain human behaviour to a global pathway. But as such it “does not necessarily trump all other climate imaginaries … [and]  prompts the obvious question: Whose imaginaries count most?”

Among the artistic responses to ideas of climate change Hulme references is The Weather Project. Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall “reminded visitors that humans are unavoidably bound up in the making and experiencing of the weather.”

“Human activities are increasingly co-producing the vaster space of the atmosphere and the climates that it yields. Through his installation Eliasson was saying that there is no standpoint outside of the weather from which humans can stand and objectively observe, measure or manipulate the atmosphere … For humans to live culturally with climate is for climate to be inescapably altered.”

An artistic idea of climate change: showing Olafur Eliasson's 2003 installation in the Tate Modern, The Weather Project.
View of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 2003
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2003

The different practices of ‘futuring’ — drawing on science, fiction, metaphor, modelling, myth, scenario-making, visualisation or other techniques — need to recognise that our futures are not reducible to climate alone but are many-sided; are produced and conditioned on different scales, not just the abstract global scale; and have geographies and histories. Also,

“imaginaries are not merely imaginaries. They are not simply inert figments of a fertile imagination. Sociotechnical imaginaries operate across the boundaries of the perceptual and the material. They can bring real worlds into being, for example carbon capture technologies, driverless vehicles, intelligent robots, or space tourism.”

Although discussed as a separate way of futuring the climate, along with models and scenarios for example, metaphor is perhaps something so intrinsic to human imagination and our faculty for language that it underpins the others as much as it stands out for investigation in its own right. As Hulme says, “metaphors help us grasp something new or unfamiliar by associating it with something more familiar and everyday.” Think of the ‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘carbon budgets’. Not intended to be taken literally, metaphors “help explain an idea, enable a comparison, or provoke a line of thought.” And metaphors are perhaps especially helpful in thinking through non-linear aspects of the complex and unpredictable world around us. Think ‘tipping points’, ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘runaway climate change’ — metaphors that Hulme picks up as phrases emanating from Earth Systems scientists. Or think ‘global thermostat’, ‘sunscreen’, or ‘insurance policy’ — metaphors deployed in the world of geoengineering. ‘Geoengineering’ is itself a metaphor, of course, one that projects as a solid science the risky business of presuming to tinker with the planet at its own scale. As Hulme says “metaphors can be hard to spot and can act as political Trojan horses” (and there goes another one), so it’s worth being on the lookout for them. Metaphors can also point in different directions, as he suggests with ‘The Anthropocene’.

“Is the Anthropocene a way of drawing attention to the awesome – but unequal – powers and responsibilities people now have for shaping the climatic future? Does it provoke a questioning of the character and wisdom of the Anthropos – the human – who has given rise to this epoch and its unequal power relations? Or does the Anthropocene metaphor dissolve the old binaries of modernity that separate nature from culture and so recognises that climate is no longer natural and never again can be?”

The overall thrust of this book is how — given the diversity of human imagination and experience, and the ever-changing state of our knowledge of the world — there can be no single narrative of climate change. Certainly, no singular strategic narrative directing what ‘we’ must do or what ‘climate’ we must end up with. There are many present experiences and understandings of what a climate is and what climate change means; and therefore many futures at stake, and many practices for reaching out to them and making use of them today. But who, in the end, can resist a convincing and pithily stated narrative?

“An indefinite future of a physically changing climate, now brought about largely by human hands, has to be confronted. But also to be grasped is the fact that the idea of an unsettled climate is with us forever.”


Find out more

Climate Change by Mike Hulme (2022) is published by Routledge. You can read about Mike’s work and thinking on climate change over many years at his website.

Some of Mike Hulme’s ideas have helped shape previous ClimateCultures blog posts, including The Stories We Live By, where Mark discusses metaphor and other aspects of our discourses and narratives on our relationships with the rest of the natural world, as explored in a free online ecolinguistics course created by ClimateCultures member Professor Arran Stibbe and volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher in EU and international environmental law whose PhD addresses regulation of light pollution, interested in synergies between environmental law, creative practice and sciences.
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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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