Beneath What Is Visible, A Vast Shadow

Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker uses an innovative take on the camera obscura to uncover visible and invisible networks and complex histories embedded in a Scottish peninsula whose water-and-landscape is home to nuclear arsenals, peace activists and pilgrims’ spiritual traditions.


2,720 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes 


Last November, I joined other artists presenting work as part of Planetary Processing, a gathering for whom photography is a mode of speculation on geological, celestial and bodily systems. I showed prints and text from my latest project, Trinity.

I created this body of work during residencies at Cove Park arts centre in Scotland, where I could engage with the unique ecology of the Rosneath peninsula: the landscape itself, the networks visible and invisible that have been imposed upon it and the complex histories embedded in its fabric.

Beneath land and water

The peninsula is dominated by the presence of HMNB Faslane and RNAD Coulport, the home of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Existing alongside these sprawling sites are the small, temporary constructions of itinerant activists — locations such as the Peace Wood bear traces of their occupation.

Trinity references the early Christian pilgrims that voyaged to remote corners of the British Isles, such as Rosneath, in search of sanctuary; peregrini who sought to use the elemental power of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment. However, it also alludes to the contemporary use of the land — promised into the service of conflict, boundaries delineated upon the surface that pay no heed to its deep geological history.

I made these images using my own ‘backpack obscura’ — a custom-built camera obscura designed to allow me to capture large format images in remote locations. A light-tight tent, it uses rudimentary materials and a simple meniscus lens to project the desired image onto the floor of the camera. As well as being my means of image making, it also served as my shelter from the elements.

After two extended stays on the peninsula I felt I had enough material to begin the editing process. However, I soon realised that conveying the depth and breadth of what I had experienced was going to be difficult using image alone. The idea of creating a publication seemed the perfect solution as a means of expanding and extending upon my work. I feel the combination of critical and creative texts really help to locate the imagery whilst also providing a platform from which the reader can access the project.

Image shows cover design of Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Design by Loose Joints.
Trinity, by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019

What follows, with some of the images I took, are edited extracts from the two texts that have been provided for the book: Not Negative, an essay by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Trinity, writer Nick Hunt’s creative memoir of his stay in 2002 at the peace camp near to the naval base that’s home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent of three Vanguard-class submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads, where he engaged in several direct actions against the base.

Not negative

an edited extract of an essay by Martin Barnes

Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light. Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light-sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.

Photographer by Oliver Raymond-Barker
Photographer: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channelled onto a light-sensitive surface.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white groundsheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.

Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of homemade structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …

Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and storytelling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half-remembered dream.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Trinity

an edited extract of an essay by Nick Hunt

He approaches from the south, a small man in a ragged robe. He comes carefully through these woods. There is no razor wire. Sunlight and shadows slide off him, spiderwebs break silently. The skeletons of dead leaves cling to his rough hair.

Behind him is the Irish Sea, cold and grey, with white-capped waves. On the rocky shoreline lies an abandoned coracle. Crabs have made their homes in it. Its willow ribs press on its skin. He will not need it now, for there is no return.

He traces the long line of the loch, stitching himself into the land. Around him is an interweave of oak and ash and pine. He picks his way through tangled thorn. There is no smooth road. Beyond the trees a wet wind blows over open water.

It rises up from deep below. Its shoulder breaks the surface. Water thunders from its flank. The daylight makes it gleam. For long months it has been submerged in darkness and in secrecy, nursing its destructiveness. It has seen the bottom of the world, the undersides of ice floes. Now its weight is buoyancy. It surfaces to claim the air.

Beneath what is visible is a vast shadow.

The call goes up just after dawn. I stumble from my tent. People are staggering around, pulling off their sleep-warm clothes. I spill coffee on myself. Someone blows a trumpet. The loch is hidden by the trees and I can’t see what the others have seen. There is something I’ve agreed to do in this eventuality but I do not know what it is. My brain is still stunned with sleep. Then I know again.

People are running to the loch. I follow without shoes. We leave the camp, cross the road and stand upon the lapping shore. There are no police around. There is no time to think. From the wet heap at my feet I select a thick black skin and drag my legs into it, heave it over my chest and arms, being flayed in reverse. It is clammy, tight and cold. Its smell is like an old tomb. We wade into icy water clad in neoprene.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He passes dwellings in the trees. Bivouacs and benders. Turf-roofed huts and tents. The camps of charcoal burners. Through the smoke he glimpses them, the gentle outcasts of these woods. Those who fled from villages. Those who are misshapen. He sees them gathered by their fires telling stories, singing songs. He blesses them as he walks by. They do not notice him.

Behind him are the gilded robes that he shed for plain sackcloth. His hand exchanged a crosier for a staff of blackthorn.

These woodlands end against the shore and he walks the pebble beach, the wind harsh upon his skin, following the undulating highlands with his eye. A seabird turns in the air. There is a stink of wrack. He could build a chapel here but something tells him to walk on, away from the long water with its access to the sea. He does not trust those depths. That shadow in the water.

The grey waves part on either side of its gliding topmost fin and join again behind, leaving no trace of its passing. It monstrous mass keeps pace below. Seabirds keep their distance. As it slides towards its home it scans the confines of this sound, reading depths and distances, alert to any obstacle. Its brutal, sleek intelligence seems evolved and not designed.

In its wake, a flying machine hangs and buzzes watchfully.

There were glaciers here once that tore strips from the land. Then the sea flooded in. It travels in their absence.

The first steps into coldness hurt, the next ones not so much. The water grips my legs, my thighs, my chest. I start to paddle. At first we cluster in a bunch but soon the swimmers scatter out. Spectators gather on the shore, shouting exhortations.

The low horizon of the hills goes up and down beyond the waves. Small waves slap against my mouth. I concentrate on breathing. The water feels very dense, made sluggish by the cold. This is not my element. The distance feels hopeless.

Far out, a noisy helicopter turns slow circles in the sky. It must be half a mile away. Below it I can see the shape of something great and dark.

Photographby Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He wanders enraptured, ruptured. The sunlight breaks upon him. On the shore he falls to his knees with the immensity and stares upon the awesome light that floods the shadows of the world. The god of love is everywhere. It is all a marvel. He closes his dazzled eyes and the world appears in negative, the black sky and the white trees, the incandescent veins of leaves, the bleached water opening to some great revelation. A vision flashes in his mind of blank structures on the shore, hard-edged and unknowable, working to some vast and terrible design. The revelation fills him but he cannot understand it. When he opens his eyes again, everything is as it is. The trees, the stones, the small waves are fixed in their positions.

It registers nothing of these things. Nothing penetrates. Its mind, if it has a mind, is as blank as a stone. It has almost reached its home. Its velocity starts to slow.

We doggy-paddle, thankful but defeated, back towards the land. As I focus on the shore I see a man stooping there. Water flows from his cupped hands. He gazes somehow through me. I think about solid ground, warm clothes, a welcome fire. When I look again he is no longer there.

Note from Nick Hunt inside Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019.

Find out more

Planetary Processing took the form of a six-month artist-led peer forum, funded by Artquest and hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. 

A fully designed mock-up of Oliver’s photobook, Trinity, was shortlisted in the 2019 Kassel Dummy Award. “This year we again invited all photographers worldwide to take part and to send us their unpublished photobook mock-up. In total, 362 photobooks from 37 countries from all over the world were sent in.” The book will travel around the world for the next six months for various exhibitions.

The book was designed by Loose Joints: “For this sprawling publication we used an interplay of papers, sizes and colours to re-structure Barker’s immersive images, which are made using a backpack-mounted camera obscura to make and print photographs in situ. The result is a swirling mixture of tones and sensations…”

In his essay, Martin Barnes says, “There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye-opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood … Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location … by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’. … His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force.”

Nick Hunt (a fellow ClimateCultures Member) adds in a note to his piece that “St. Modan, the son of an Irish chieftain, renounced his position as an abbot to live as a hermit in the 6th century. His relics are kept at Rosneath Church on the shore of Gare Loch.”

The full texts of Martin’s and Nick’s pieces, Not Negative and Trinity respectively, are available at Oliver’s website. Oliver’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone, explores his encounter — on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry — with a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.

In his essay, Martin Barnes refers to the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, the account of that hero’s encounters with the monster Grendel, who terrorised humanity from his lair beneath the shadowy mere. For a discussion on an alternative imagining of Grendel and Beowulf and the perilous meeting of worlds, see Bringing Our Monsters Back Home, my review of John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel.

Oliver Raymond-Barker
Oliver Raymond-Barker
An artist using photography in its broadest sense - analogue and digital process, natural materials and camera-less methods of image making - to explore our relationship to nature.
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‘Creations of the Mind’

creations of the mindFilmmaker James Murray-White reviews A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment. In this scholarly work, Rupert Read advocates an ecological approach to film-philosophy analysis, arguing that film can re-shape the viewer’s relationship to the environment and other living beings.


1,830 words: estimated reading time 7.5 minutes 


It’s a real pleasure to engage with Rupert Read and this stimulating work – particularly as my previous knowledge of him was when he stood as the Green Party candidate for Cambridge, and more recently as an energetic advocate with Extinction Rebellion, where passions run politically high and our frustrations against climate inaction and political corruption are creating cultural shift.

In this new book, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, creativity and imagination are at the fore, coupled with the author’s strict academic discipline. The opening line sets the agenda wonderfully — “film is the great form of our time” — while the concluding lines from the final paragraph of the introduction get to the heart of his enquiry: “The real question may be: can films help wake us up in time? What have we learnt or could we learn [from these films], have we learnt enough; and can the learning be shared quickly and deeply enough?”   

Read has selected a range of films to dissect — from Waltz with Bashir, Solaris, and Lord of the Rings, to Avatar — and touches many others, following strands and threads as he expands and deepens his theme.

The human journey

At a launch event for the book in Cambridge, he spoke of his life-long love of this medium, and mused on how best now to tell the younger generation about the existent and deepening climate crisis we are in: “through art you can get closer into the guts of a story.”

A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read
A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read

I resonate deeply with this last phrase, as for fifteen years I’ve attempted to dive into stories — mainly human, but always wrapped up in the theme of human/s within a particular landscape. I work principally through the genre of documentary, although with a background before that in theatre and the wonderful stories inherent in stagecraft. Finding the art in both the telling of the story, and the artfulness of the story itself, is always the issue to work on using lens-based media, coupled with the deep dive into the vast jigsaw of accumulated footage allowed in the editing room.

I haven’t yet met anyone who hasn’t loved Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (2001-03), featuring the great Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. Not having read the books when young, I came to the films fresh, with no expectations other than slight frowning at a big screen, big box office movie, against my preference for small arthouse indies.

Read goes right into the core of the power of the story and Tolkien / Jackson’s vision, interpreting it as “an exploratory allegory of serious mental suffering”; and yes, I can resonate with that. It is less about good and evil, more about the human journey, as those familiar with the ‘men’s work’ movement will know; in particular, Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), based on a German fairy tale, explores in myth the path to adulthood and fuller humanness that men must travel.

Read describes The Lord of the Rings as a “post-theological Buddhist world”, and as a call to go towards our demons (viz the right-wing governments of our time, Trump, the Brexit fiasco, and the oil companies and businesses that exploit this planet and all forms of life upon it). By facing them, we can then see them dissolve. But first we must go on the entire journey, as laid out within Lord of the Rings in a bigger mythological sense — leaving the Shire, into the heat, the battle, chasing the ring, and meeting Sauron — or the path of critical appraisal and engagement with the screen media oeuvre that Reed lays out within his book. And respond. And absorb. And re-feel the world.

Ancient stories 

My filmmaking was greatly enhanced by an eighteen month MA in Media at UWE Bristol, which balanced a light academic dusting with opportunities to explore our practice and to collaborate. My great joy was access to the archives of artists’ films that were the early meanderings in places: estuaries, and mountains framed in long slow shots and sudden effects, and the different ways of telling.

One of my favourite films remains the Inuit film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2001), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, which shifts rapidly through time and dimensions within the frozen lands and mythology of Northern Canada / Independent Nunavut. It revealed to me new ways of telling: old, ancient ways and ancient stories, but using this newer medium to tell them in modern ways, layered in time, space, and snow. I am looking forward to new Canadian-Haida release from director Gwaai Edenshaw, SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) (2018), which is based on a Haida myth about a man who, weakened by an accident at sea, is taken over by supernatural beings.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk

My personal recommendation for one of the most interesting makers working today — more on a theme of humans stranded within the time and space of a landscape than a directly ecological dilemma (although I’ll take this up in a review of his work at some later stage) is British artist Ben Rivers. Two Years at Sea (2001) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013) will both be seen as urgent films of our time — in years to come! In the Holocene, his current project (with Anocha Suwichakornpong), may well be the film we activist/artists get blown away by, due to its creative telling of predicament.

There is such a deep analysis and reflection within A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment that it is challenging to fully do it justice within a short review. In an early chapter that analyses both Waltz with Bashir (2008) and then Apocalypto (2006), Read’s dissection cuts deep, and these beautiful lines I feel sum up his approach:

“One’s sense of safety and of complacent identification with the victims is swept away, and one is left with something much more challenging and unsettling, forcing one to think again about one’s place in the world — and about our responsibilities to preserving this beautiful place of ours.”

Building hope 

Read is a skilled ‘bringer together’ of different plots and themes in seemingly very different films, chewing them together — Never Let Me Go (2011) and The Road (2010), for instance. In one chapter, When melancholia is exactly what is called for, after presenting different interpretations of the films Melancholia (2011) and Solaris (1972) over the course of a few pages, he brings his reflections together to reach very strong conclusions and well-argued points. For example, that while Melancholia offers its audience an emotional means to transcend death where Solaris is bleaker, more pessimistic, they are both cinematic pointers to the immediacy of life as we live it.

We move from memory, and revisionism, acceptance of the ecological crisis we must accept we are within, and the grief that must flow from that, to hope. Although this must be a real sense of hope brought about by community and change, not by technological fixes or a rational-scientific approach, by reason alone, as is also demonstrated by The Master and his Emissary (2009), the dynamic work of Read’s academic colleague and friend, Iain McGilchrist; his book explores left/right brain consciousness and draws heavily upon the work of visionary artist William Blake. Read makes clear that these are key aspects — and importantly, as he says, “neglected aspects”.

Melancholia, by Lars von Trier
Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier

Ecology and Enlightenment

I have learnt from reading this work that this longer way of watching and cross-referencing films, and of course viewing them at different times of our lives, gives a deeper philosophical perspective; and Read’s deep grounding in Wittgensteinian philosophy takes us deeper still. I’m sure this book will in turn also make me a ‘better’ filmmaker, but more importantly than that, a better attender to, listener, reader, activist for the earth, a seeker of re-feeling and of a spaciousness in our world, in every moment.

Artists within the ClimateCultures network will, I feel, benefit from seeing how the academic eye can respond to what we do, and to bring philosophy into the viewing — and, importantly, into the feeling of engagement. In my own case, this book has widened my personal cinematic perspective. I’m sure it will transform my filmmaking and storytelling more widely, and help sharpen its focus into exploring transformative experience, although mine is a largely documentary eye. After all, however much we love the medium, the screen itself remains a medium, and the infamous Marshall McLuhan quote — from Understanding Media: the extensions of man (1964) — rings true: “The medium is the message. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Read suggests that “One might … risk saying that artists have too often largely only interpreted the world; the point, as any true philosopher or filmmaker will realise, is to change it.” 

And he asks, “So, who would make up stories as horrible as Never Let Me Go and The Road?”

Answer: Ones who wanted us to end our dogmatic, complacent or despairing defeated slumber. Both stories concern adults who tell children ‘noble lies’. They raise starkly the troubling question of what we ought to tell our children, at a time when their very future is being radically compromised. The only way to avoid such a predicament without evasion is to change the future.

In conclusion, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment is an erudite deep dive into the world of stories of the human/earth experience told visually through film: it has much to reveal to readers, be they practitioner of the art, scholar, viewer or activist keen to explore the genre or be rejuvenated by it.

I highly recommend this book, and thank Rupert for his skills and energy spent researching and writing. 


Find out more

A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment by Rupert Reed (2019) is published by Routledge. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is a renowned Wittgensteinian scholar, with research interests in political and environmental philosophy.

SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) directed by Gwaai Edenshaw (2018) — which receives its UK premiere as part of the Canada Now film festival in London, from 24 to 28 April — is dsciussed in this recent Guardian article (28/3/19), Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world.

The title of this post, ‘Creations of the Mind’, is from a quote in the frontspiece of the book and comes from Jetsun Milarepa, an 11th century (CE) Tibetan yogi and poet:

See demons as demons: that is the danger.
Know that they are powerless: that is the way.
Understand them for what they are: that is deliverance.
Recognise them as your father and mother: that is their end.
Realise that they are creations of the mind: they become its glory.
When these truths are known, all is liberation.

— Milarepa

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Rising Appalachia

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe SmithWriter Mary Woodbury finds deep resonance in the music of Rising Appalachia, who draw on the rural landscapes of her family, and whose musical fusion offers ideas of resilience and community in the face of change and loss.


2,235 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 18 minutes video  


Mary’s post is contribution to our Gifts of Sound and Vision series: where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.

The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…

***

Mom was born in a log cabin in Francis Holler in Brinkley, Kentucky, a small, sleepy town in the Appalachian hills. Her dad and mother never had an education past the 4th grade nor ever learned how to drive a car. They lived off the land and probably rued that Pappaw had to work in the coal mines to earn money (he later had a carpentry business) or that the little crick in their front yard was really just a sewer pit.

My memories growing up consisted of hanging with family and climbing the mountains around my grandparents’ holler and picking wildflowers in sunlit meadows.

We went back there a few years ago to remember it all. Mountains nearby had been strip-mined. The cliffs rising up on one side of the dirt holler were gone. Their little summer waterfalls and winter icicles were gone. The log cabin where my mom was born was gone. The old lady’s house at the end of the holler — where we used to pick black walnuts — was gone. Seemed like even the mountain was gone or at least started further back than it had due to road expansion. My mammaw and pappaw and dad and an aunt and uncle are gone too. But Pappaw’s old house was still there. Time is a cruel enemy when you experience loss like that, not just of people you love but of the wild you lose along the way. And, if you live long enough, these losses start accumulating to the point it’s like phantom limbs and the ache lives long in the heart.

Deep roots

480 million years ago — when the Appalachian Mountains formed during the Ordovician era, Laurentia’s landmass put the Scottish Highland and Appalachian Mountains in the same mountain range, which explains their physical similarities. Who could have foretold that the Scot-Irish folks would migrate across the Atlantic as well? We went to Ireland with my mother a few years ago, and she still talks about how it uncannily feels like home.

The Appalachian mountains extend from southeastern Canada down to central Alabama. But there’s also the cultural region of Appalachia that is generally considered to include folks living in the hills and valleys between Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. This area of memory, of loss, is one that has become more bittersweet the further away I have travelled. Where I felt real and felt the animal in me as I spent long days with my cousins and siblings climbing those hills, where also my mother had planted pine trees as a child. I remember the soft summer nights and hearing whip-poor-wills while sitting outside on the old porch where my Pappaw whittled and told stories. I remember Mammaw snapping beans in the yard and her great shucky beans and fried green tomatoes and applesauce cake and cornbread. What I remember, really the most, was the love.

The Appalachian area was sometimes frightening to me. Dotting the backroads were otherworldly shacks that were so broken down you wouldn’t think anyone lived there, until you saw an ancient toothless couple or a clothesline out on the front porch. Late at night trucks would roll down Highway 160, in front of that old sewer creek, and would echo throughout the bends along the road.

We’d go up to hike near an abandoned coal mine where a house had burned down and now stood black and structureless, and there were poor shacks up there too. The land that had cradled my memory from as long as I could remember was also a forest of poverty, mist, and ghosts. Every time we visited, it seemed like we went backwards in time, similar to the way Joseph Conrad described the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. The area resembled nothing of where we came from, though it did resemble everything that was wrong with America and its unhealthy coal mining industry among a poverty-stricken, hungry community.

In the 19th century, coal overtook wood for energy in the United States. From the 1960s onward, mountaintop coal removal became more popular than underground mining due to the fact that a worker could get more than twice as much coal. Coal mining has been ruinous for rivers, air, soil, biodiversity, and, of course, human health — with black lung disease and cancer. Fly ash slurry and chemical spills from coal production have destroyed waterways and even been found in drinking water. Fracking to extract natural gas found in shale is also dangerous in that it results in poisonous wastewater that can end up in groundwater; this water is hard to break down, even by wastewater treatment plants. Deforestation and wetland removal in order to produce coal are no small issues either. Though the fossil fuel industry has been known for the jobs it provides, mechanization and energy transition have greatly reduced the number of these jobs in the past few decades.

Rising Appalachia: story and song

My bittersweet memories of the eastern Kentucky hills and urge to experience those times again has been helped along by story and song from the region, particularly from the band Rising Appalachia, whose music takes me back. Founded by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith (Leah sometimes goes by the last name Song), the band’s southern roots are punctuated with activism and care for the natural world.

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
risingappalachia.com

Musical Traditions, the online magazine for traditional music throughout the world, explains Appalachian music as deriving from two types:

Today when ethnomusicologists discuss ‘Appalachian music’ they generally divide the term into two periods: the traditional music — including ballads and dance tunes, mostly brought over with Anglo-Celtic immigrants, and in evidence from the early eighteenth century through 1900 — and the ‘old-time’ music popular from around 1900 through 1930, a blend of that tradition with parlour and vaudeville music, African-American styles, and Minstrel Show tunes… One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group… Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a ‘slave instrument’ until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or ‘bom-diddle-diddy’ produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.

Rising Appalachia integrates all these styles in their music, and has an upcoming album, Leylines, coming in May, which will include Ani DiFranco, Trevor Hall, and Maurice Tuner. According to their website:

“Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music — that we’ve been born and raised with — and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

Rise up

I’m looking forward to Leylines but also have found a home in their music that’s already out as it’s kind of like the umbilical cord to home. I’ve listened to the band for a few years now and have recognized the way that pain can bring art, and that their activism is not lip service nor festishized but comes from a genuine place.

In the video of the song Filthy Dirty South is the statement: “Due to the production and extraction of oil, a great deal of marshes and swamps are lost at an astonishing rate of a football field every 30 minutes.” The video shows a paddle through a southern swamp, along with the sisters playing guitars in the woods. Water reflects sunlight almost ponderously. Plants that are not invasive kudzu (which I saw everywhere in Kentucky when we last visited) peek through the rich forest soil. Feathers and beads adorn guitars and hair. There is something primal about it all, and something sweet about the sisters’ voices dipping into the soft ballad of Appalachia.

Another Rising Appalachia song, SUNU, has an aerialist swinging from a tree, dancers and Moko jumbies wearing ancient African masks, and it combines African and Appalachian music. ‘Sunu’ means ‘Dance Beautiful Women Dance’ in Guinea. It’s clearly a celebration of life and nature, but also seems to represent, at least to me, a theatrical coming together of multiple cultures, a positive sign about how we must dignify where people came from.

In Occupy, the band recognizes resistance. It’s reminiscent of old blues with that pain of the world coming through but with no more weeping and a’wailing because “we’ll be done with the troubles of the world.” Similarly, in Resilient, one of my favorite songs, is a call for action and not drowning in helplessness. Echoing the reality of pipelines through backyards and “prayers to the waters” and “women to the center”, it calls for hanging on, not just to where we are now but to our roots. The video is a beautiful one of dancers expressing this idea of uplift.

I cannot begin to cover every vision and sound from these artists, and they are all as worthy as the ones mentioned here. I can only recommend digging a new rabbit hole for yourself. You will find modern fusion as well as reimagined older folk songs like I’ll Fly Away and Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Another Rising Appalachia song, Harmonize, further ties together past and present, as the band actually travelled to the Salish Sea, near my current home in British Columbia, to film the video and meet old friends and family there. The video is a story of rites of passage for a teenager and includes old crafts like sailing, blacksmithing, seed-saving, fishing, and even love and courtship. 

Listening to this music has become the thread connecting past and present for me, in more ways than one. Their videos bring back the sweet summer days I recall as a child in the sunlit forested mountains and lakes, with bugs and seeds and petals flying by in some frenetic motion that says “this is life, and it is good.” Their music may be born of pain in this world, but it takes us to a higher place where we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against hate, division, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. It’s a music of place and time, of what was once and still is, but the songs also transcend time. It’s about hanging onto the deepest of our good roots, no matter that mountains, summer waterfalls, marshes, forests, or people we love have gone.

Since those old days of Kentucky, although I have moved to the west coast of Canada, protesting pipelines in my own woods — and finding new mountains to climb and old stories to tell among friends during backyard southern parties, complete with shucky beans and bourbon — I still slip back into my southern accent. Rise above. Carry it forward. Uplift. 


Find out more

Mary Woodbury — whose forthcoming novel, Up the River (under pen name Clara Hume), is about a pipeline spill in Appalachia — has previously contributed two posts for us on A History of Eco-fiction

Up the River, by Clara Hume
Up the River, by Clara Hume
Cover design: Clare Hume © 2019 (art © Can Stock Photo / prometeus www.canstockphoto.co.uk)

Rising Appalachia was founded by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the band established an international fan base due to relentless touring, tireless activism, and no small degree of stubborn independence: find out more at risingappalachia.com.

Musical Traditions, the magazine for traditional music throughout the world, is an online resource, and includes A Short History of Appalachian Music, which Mary quotes from in her post.

Though this article centres around one band’s contribution to Appalachian music, Mary has provided some further reference for both story and song:

Mary Woodbury
Mary Woodbury
A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.
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“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis — a book urging the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.


700 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


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

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

The mind of the wild

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

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

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

Learning to die

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more 

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

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Art, Rise Up!

Artist Ottavia Virzi describes a recent intervention by Art Rise Up, the creative collective bringing art and activism together for environmental protection, in support of the campaign to halt opencast coal mining, using art to engage cultural meaning.


1,010 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes 


How to realign our creative practice in support of effective actions, aiming to help achieve some steps in the process leading to a fairer society? As creatives, feeling this need can lead to different paths: paths that can be centred on raising cultural awareness, or be part of a sustainable design process, or can look at the bridges between art and activism. We are interested in testing this last option inside the collective Art Rise Up. Approaching activism can be an uplifting experience for those looking to direct ways to have an impact, overcoming the sense of frustration and disempowerment that is felt by so many citizens today. Our creative intervention in support of the direct occupation of Pont Valley started from this common need we perceived, to use our creative skills to directly support a significant environmental campaign.

A direct occupation of the valley has been taking place from early March until eviction last week, but the campaign is however motivated to stay strong.  A campaign lasting decades for some members of the community, trying to stop an invasive open-cast coal mine from opening right in front of the villages of Dipton and Leadgate, County Durham. A campaign felt ever more strongly today, right when England is committed to coal phase-out by 2025, in an areas which has been historically exploited for coal.

Creative intervention

Coal is the symbol of many countries’ slow response in tackling the climate crisis. Moreover, the impact of coal on local community is extremely high, due to coal dust produced through the distressing excavations. A petition signed by 88,000 people regarding the Pont Valley mine was brought to the Home Office in February and ignored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Sajid Javid, the same Tory HCLG Minister — just appointed Home Secretary — who recently denied permission for another mine — at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, on the grounds of climate change and implications on health and wildlife — did not react regarding Pont Valley. The same private energy company, Banks Group, is involved in both mines. This scenario underlines the conflicts between private corporate interest and governments, who are not able to pronounce a complete and definitive “no”. National usage of coal power has diminished in England, amounting to 8% of the energy mix in 2017. But the continued dependency on cheap polluting energy is a direct consequence of our economic system — based on boundless consumerism — and the lack of extensive policies reforming energy usage through real investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and of a brave discourse regarding the need to re-adjust energy demand. This does not mean de-growth seen as a step backwards, but rather as a different growth and a step forward.

"Sajid Javid turns a blind eye to Pont Valley". Image: Art Rise Up
“Sajid Javid turns a blind eye to Pont Valley”
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

All of these thoughts informed our decision to organise ourselves into a collective which could keep supporting the campaign in London, where our life as creative freelancers often means compromises in a constant search for balance in our actions.

Cultural meaning

The task we gave ourself was to create something simple and efficient, to give a shape to this large amount of information on the issues in the form of an artistic intervention which could also try to help to influence directly. The exercise of art is after all an attempt to condense communication, and give it tangible cultural meaning.

Pont Valley masks. Image: Art Rise Up
Pont Valley masks
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

With the use of a critical neo-classical bust, we decided to underline the responsibility of governments and power figures in handling the climate crisis. This is a call for politicians to re-think the meaning of providing community welfare beyond exploitative models.

Our installation consisted of a clay bust picturing Sajid Javid — empty black eye cavities, and coal around him — and a plaque referring to his controversial silence regarding the Pont Valley mine. In the plinth, built-in speakers were emitting sounds of birds chirping with overlapping industrial sounds of excavators.

More-than-human community

The statue has been officially unveiled in front of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Direct action and artistic intervention can share with theatre a performative key, which is increasingly used in protests. We decided to unveil the statue in a ceremony with four officiants wearing masks inspired by Pont Valley wildlife – Skylark, Crested Newt, Pont Burn River, and Gorse Bush. These masks to represent a wider community of people and living beings behind our actions. Mining and burning coal harms the smaller creatures in our ecosystems as much as human communities worldwide.

Art Rise Up

Art Rise Up

Art Rise Up
All images: Art Rise Up © 2018

Our intervention didn’t manage to change Sajid Javid’s mind. The Pont Valley Protection Camp was evicted last week. Banks Group are even planning to appeal against the Druridge Bay decision. What this little journey helped us discover though, is how committed and motivated is the movement behind environmental campaigns. How a small example such as a coal mine in County Durham and a larger perspective necessarily live together. How the journey will still be long, with countless the campaigns to fight. How important it is for all to embark on this journey to adjust the system, from politicians to countryside dwellers, to city workers and artists together, committing to spread awareness and give shape to a real plea for change.


Find out more

Art Rise Up has a Facebook page and intends to promote and share contents about Art and Activism.

You can learn more about the open cast coal mine at Pont Valley and the campaigns to prevent it at Coal Action UK and in these articles from The Ecologist, BBC News and Chronicle Live: Protecting Pont Valley: meet the protesters fighting a new coal mine (28/3/18); Dipton opencast mine protesters in underground tunnels (20/4/18); All the opencast campaigners kicked out of protest camp after 33 hour stand off with bailiffs (20/4/18).

Ottavia Virzi
Ottavia Virzi
A set and costume designer focusing on sustainability, heritage crafts and social history, and associate artist with Art Rise Up, a group merging art and activism.
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