Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


1,980 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Directing The Children

Climate change dramatist Julia Marques looks to her recent experience directing a play about environmental crisis to ask how community and other positive features of amateur dramatics groups might offer us routes into addressing the climate emergency itself.


2,060 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


“We need a director for our spring production. Julia, why don’t you direct an environmental play?”

And, as quickly as that, I was in charge of the next production of my local amateur dramatics group, the Beaufort Players in Ealing, West London.

I’m not sure I fully understood the task at hand when I accepted the job, as I have only ever directed one other production (which was not a full-length play) in a previous amateur arts society. It turns out that directing requires high levels of multi-tasking, including the ability to create posters, choose set colours, help source props, secure a sound and lighting team, write a piece for the programme and ensure your cast have adequate costumes and makeup. This is in addition to the stereotypical, but fairly accurate, job of telling actors where to go and how to deliver lines on stage.

Building community

I found the experience thrilling, stressful and rewarding in equal measure. You have the power and the responsibility to shape the play in whatever way you want, to interpret it how you see fit and to focus on what you want the audience to get from it. But, as the famous quotation says, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and directing is no exception. Everything is riding on your leadership and the decisions you make — the buck stops with you. However, it is also thrilling to have a whole team of people standing by you every step of the way, and I wholeheartedly believe that this is what amateur theatre groups do best — community. I have come to the realisation through this process of directing that I do truly think that amateur dramatics societies could be used as a model for community-building that could indeed help with the environmental situation we find ourselves in today.

Play - showing Hazel & Robin. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Hazel: “Robin makes wine. Elderberry. Gooseberry. If he offers you the parsnip it means he wants to get you drunk, it’s absolute filth.”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

A sense of community is a glorious thing; you feel supported and safe. You have people you can talk to (in this case, about where to find fake blood and whether we can emulate a flood on stage or not), people who share your sense of purpose and are with you till the bitter end! They share your vision and work with you to make it a reality — simply wonderful. Can you imagine if we used this dynamic to work towards a more Earth-centred way of living where we all supported each other through the transition and reached our goals together? What would that world look like?

Let’s look at some of the main elements of a local am dram group and how these could possibly form a community model for greater ecological sensibility.

‘The play’s the thing’

Common purpose — this is not a new idea, most societies are exactly that, a group of people with a shared interest. It’s what you do with this that counts. In an am dram group, you are a team and everyone pitches in and does a bit of everything. Very often, being in a play means not only acting but helping with the set, props, costume, hair and make-up, front of house, selling programmes and drinks, lighting, sound, prompting, directing, producing, designing and general moral support. I think the support offered in this sort of situation is invaluable. I have heard it said that members of amateur groups are often more dedicated than those in professional companies. This may be surprising as everyone is a volunteer — no one is getting paid. Perhaps this flexibility and willingness to help with whatever needs doing is the key. People are not stuck doing one job, they are actively encouraged to do as many as they can! This sense of freedom and the responsibility granted to people is empowering, and maybe that’s what we need for more environmental action. You are involved, empowered, active and purposeful. When people feel these sentiments then things really get moving.

There is a committee that meets regularly to discuss how the group is doing, made up of a chairperson, treasurer, secretary and some ordinary members. Tasks are divided up and reported on, productions discussed and minutes taken. Leadership is still needed but the group is carried by its members.

Small is beautiful — there are many am dram groups of varying sizes, but I think there is probably an optimal size for everyone to feel included in the group and to feel as though they are familiar enough with others in the group to feel comfortable there.

We work towards a production three times a year. Having an end goal motivates people, spurs them into action. You can’t underestimate that sense of achievement when the curtain opens and a fully-formed show spreads its wings to take flight. The thought, “I was part of making this happen”, is a powerful one.

In a previous post for ClimateCultures, I discussed the idea that theatre can provide us a ‘space for thought’. As part of an acting group, you have time together and time apart. This affords you both space to think and space to act. Previously, I had only focused on the audience members being afforded the space to think within the performance but this is true of those involved in the performance too. Let’s take the actor; they are given a script (much of the time) and direction but then they must also go and learn their lines by themselves and practise the actions they have rehearsed. Space to think individually and space to act communally. This space to think is important both for the audience and the cast and crew.

Could we combine these elements — common purpose, sense of inclusivity, familiarity, and working towards an end goal, being given responsibility and tasks to do, and creating both a communal and individual space for thought and action  — to form enviro-action groups to increase our ecological connections?

Moving beyond business as usual

Back to the play. The one I finally settled on is The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. It was published and first performed in 2016 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It revolves around three retired nuclear engineers who helped set up a plant on the east coast of England which has been damaged by a tidal wave before the play begins. Two of the characters are a married couple and the third is an old friend and colleague who appears unannounced at the start of the play. The reason she has come is not revealed until the middle, and I will not spoil it for those of you who wish to read or see it, but suffice it to say that she offers them a life-defining decision to change their ways or simply continue as before (‘business as usual’, I believe is the phrase).

HAZEL: How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy?

Showing the play poster for Beaufort Players Present The Children
Beaufort Players Present …
Poster design: Brigite Marques © 2019

This obviously echoes recent global events, and not only climate-change related ones. This is fairly insightful of Lucy Kirkwood, as she started writing the play years before it was published. It also really brings us face to face with the idea of generational responsibility, and asks us if we have the ability to consider future generations while making decisions today. This resonates with indigenous practices in which, as researcher Liz Hosken says, “indigenous leaders are also accountable to past, present and future generations”. This is an extremely difficult concept for many of us who are not part of an indigenous group to get our heads around, as we are such short-term thinkers usually. Considering anything more than simply one generation into the future is somewhat mind-blowing; what will that world even look like? We have no way of knowing for sure, but at least we can play our part in ensuring that it is a little better because we made it so.

ROSE: It’s a good thing though, isn’t it?
ROBIN: What?
ROSE: Well. Learning to live with less.
ROBIN: Well you might have to.

The opinions flowing from the audience reflected my own feelings for the play — it’s a beautiful mixture of laughter, tears, playfulness and significance. Each section is thought-provoking in its own way. The choices the characters have to make are ones we ourselves are also being faced with. The play’s overall theme for me is how you value your life and the lives of others and what you are willing to sacrifice for them; what does selflessness really mean? Woven into this, Kirkwood adds inter-generational decision-making, guilt and responsibility, all contained within the four walls of the cottage kitchen and the three corners of a love triangle!

Play - showing Robin, Hazel & Rose. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Robin: “Our age, you have to show no fear to Death, it’s like bulls, you can’t run away or they’ll charge”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

I think it would be almost impossible at this stage not to mention Extinction Rebellion. The group — eco-activists using civil disobedience and direct action — nearly reached their goal of two weeks of disruption in London earlier this year. Their actions started shortly after we had finished our play, which was unplanned I might add! Perhaps this is a new type of community that is forming to create environmental awareness and action. They certainly made an impact and managed to disrupt some of the central parts of the city.

ROSE: I do understand now, that for the world to you know completely fall apart, that we can’t have everything we want just because we want it.

Another model of community-based action is being enacted through the Transition Towns movement. As Liz Hosken says, “social movements such as Transition Towns in the industrialised countries are the beginning of the recognition of our need to reconnect with place in order to find identity, well-being and to learn once again how to live with ecological integrity, in compliance with the laws which inherently govern our lives”. In my local borough of Ealing, our Transition group has influenced the council to declare a Climate Emergency — before the UK parliament did so. Transition groups are community-led and really do work at the local level to inspire members to move towards an environmentally-focused way of being that is beneficial to all.

ROSE: You have the power to … you have a power. You have power.

My own vision is to have more people feel they are part of something, even if that is only a gardening group or a clean air petition: to feel as though they have a community. This is what the Beaufort Players have given me, and it really does help you feel happier and more purposeful, which is what we need when it comes to the environment. There is so much doom and gloom and we must move beyond that if we are to act with passion rather than stagnate in fear.

Just as with the characters on a stage, we must find our part to play in the ensemble of life.


Find out more

Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children is published by Nick Hern Books (2016).

You can read Julia’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Space for Thought, where she reflects on her research at that time for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in what climate change means for us. 

Liz Hosken’s Reflections on an Inter-cultural Journey into Earth Jurisprudence is published in Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence (edited by Peter Burden, 2011: Wakefield Press).

You can read more about Transition Towns — and find transition groups and activities nearest to you — at Transition Network.

Extinction Rebellion has many local groups and resources on its site, and Culture Declares Emergency lists its signatories, including Royal Court Theatre — where The Children was first performed — and many other theatre and other cultural organisations. Royal Court’s Executive Producer Lucy Davies is also a ClimateCultures Member and her post, Artists’ Climate Lab, describes a special week of creative activities she and others devised for artists working in London’s leading theatres.

Unpacking Deep Time in Our Living Present

The living presentClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk field kit’s latest addition — an attractive and engaging set of cards that explores our planet’s 4.6 billion year timeline and offers us thoughtful paths into the living present.


1,630 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes 


The same creative team who brought us the innovative Deep Time Walk app in 2017 has now released this beautifully illustrated pack of cards, laying out the timeline and the story of the development of the Earth and its life over our full 4.6 billion years. It’s a mini-encyclopedia and pocket guide to the origins and meaning of being human in our home world.

Deep Time Walk cards
Deep Time Walk cards

From Earth’s origins (4,600 million years ago) and Late Heavy Bombardment (4,100 MYA), through the arrival of the first RNA molecules (3,800 MYA) and life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (3,700 MYA) to the oldest fossils (3,400 MYA), this is a story of great detail and complexity that the pack’s writers — Geoff Ainscow, Dr Stephan Harding and Robert Woodford — have done a remarkable job of condensing into captivating and compelling prose. A whole team of artists have produced images to complement a narrative that could at times overwhelm us with technical ideas — ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (2,600 MYA), ‘Ediacarans / Cambrian explosion’ (500 MYA), ‘energetic mitcochondria’ (1,800 MYA) — but which never holds up the story. Many of the cards also come with very short quotations from scientists, thinkers and artists:

“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history.”

– Rachel Carson

“The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”

– Nan Shepherd

“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

– Thomas Berry

“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”

– Richard Powers

Showing our ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth
Ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth

Each card covers 100 million years and, in around 150 words, does an admirable job of relating the known facts and the theories that give us our current understanding of where we’ve come from, just how far life on Earth has travelled in a succession of staggering biochemical novelties, biotic explosions and mass extinctions, and the humblingly brief span of time that is the story of our own species within this slow-fast-slow dance of the living planet.

The dawn of humans arrives 47 cards into the timeline — with the very next card bringing us to the present and into the Anthropocene. Breaking the steady pace of 100 million years per card to allow for this sudden explosion of various human species, the domination of Homo sapiens and our accelerating growth as a species and a world-shaping force, those last two cards in the sequence cover just 1 million years — “By about 500,000 years ago, early humans were making clothing to keep themselves warm, building shelters, creating fire and utilising hand axes.” If the card makers had stuck to the prehuman timescale of around 150 words per 100 million years, I reckon Homo sapiens — and the invention of words themselves — would have merited only the last syllable of the final word in the Anthropocene Epoch’s card: ‘extinction’.

The living present — a future on the cards

Fortunately, the story does not end there and the cards themselves continue, posing questions of our common future — ‘stabilised or hothouse Earth?’ — and offering suggestions for positive action and radical hope. The idea of these cards is itself an offering of action and hope in what it encapsulates as ‘the living present’: an opportunity to pause after the 4.6 billion year journey of the cards’ narrative and “take time to ground yourself again amidst the emotions that may be arising.” It’s an invitation to breathe with a renewed awareness of what the oxygen in your breath actually means in the long story of a living earth, what its exchange with carbon dioxide in your lungs means for our collective moment on Earth, and the work that your own particular community of microbes is doing with you here and now — inside the entity that you regard as ‘you’ — and your place in the community of beings now, as well as past and future:

“The influence of the deep past and the interdependence of the living present is all around you: it is your wider body, your greater self, our common home.”

Showing our life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion
Life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion

Fittingly, then, the model for the cards — though complementary to the app itself, which is most likely to be experienced solo, whether on your favourite walk or in an encounter with some new place (either way, revealed as a localised but globally connected assemblage of soil, water, rock, sky and living beings) — is as a communal exploration, a conversation with others. You might share the pack with a friend or group as you walk together: perhaps taking turns to read out loud through the timeline; perhaps, stopping to consider some of the science and what it reveals in the living scene around you; maybe leafing through some of the illustrations and seeing what comes up in reflection on some of the questions you might share about the ecological and climate crises of our time.

Humanity’s place on Earth

The Living Present card poses a few ready questions to get just such a discussion started. “How do you feel about humanity’s place and impact on Earth now? … What strikes you about Earth’s long evolution?” My favourite question is probably “Has your sense of time shifted?”; whereas the ultimate challenge of “What can you do to help humanity shift towards a deep ecological consciousness?” is probably too daunting for most of us, even (or especially) after such an encounter with the immensity of Deep Time. It’s hard to feel at one and the same time the great immensity of the living planet over timescales vastly exceeding the brief flicker of our own existence, and to conjure the sense of the needed difference that one moment of thought in one lifetime among so many billion human lives can help to create. That is the paradox of our present times and of our personal time on Earth, however. And, as the cards neatly demonstrate, the resolution to the paradox and the key to avoiding a feeling of despair at the sheer scale of the challenge is that we are not alone. Immediately after posing that possibly overwhelming question, the card wisely advises: “For group work we recommend Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects and the book written with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope.” These cards are stepping stones within a much larger landscape and offer us that necessary bridge to action.

Understanding our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present
Our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present

Some of that action will be new thinking, questioning, conversation and further reading. Take the cards out again with a new group and see what emerges in your walk together through the woods, along the river, through the city park, beside the coast.

Some of it might be assembling with others — for street action, for political opposition, for culture-changing proposition. Take your appreciation of Deep Time into this present moment of crisis and opportunity.

Some of it might be working alone — creating stories, art, video, music or poems from your encounters with the cards and with the living world, putting the two into dialogue — and then coming together to share these artistic expressions in a public space, a private venue, a platform like ClimateCultures or a new site of your own creation.

Some of it might be devising and organising new walks with others in your communities, using these cards and your previous experiences with them or with the app as a means to simply share space and time and a little breathing room in the world.

Joining the Scientist and the Fool

As the introductory card explains, “We hope the pack empowers others to express Earth’s deep history in a multitude of forms, with the openness to imbue them with meaning to connect hearts and minds across different cultures and traditions.”

Whether you’ve already used the app or have yet to try it, I recommend you also (re)immerse yourself in the story told there by the Scientist and the Fool and introduce it to someone else. How might the two of you retell the journey? What questions arise, and who else might you find to explore them with? The app also works as an audio book for a sedentary journey, though travelling far with your own brain. And the script is now available as a short book. So there are many ways to explore Deep Time ideas and to bring them to life in your encounters with the world and with others. Many ways of thinking through and discovering your next step.

“What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour”

– William Blake


Find out more

The full field kit — app, audiobook CD, script and cards — is available at the Deep Time Walk site. And you can read the ClimateCultures review of the original app, Taking the World for a Walk; the app itself has been updated since then, with a range of new features described here.

Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects was republished by New Society Publishers in 2014 in an updated version, as Coming Back to Life. You can explore Macy’s work at JoannaMacy.net and the ideas that the book explores and the work it inspires at The Work That Reconnects Network.

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy was published by New World Library in 2012.

Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking

RisingMark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.


2,860 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


A copy of Rising goes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.

Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:

Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.

Endsickness

Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.

These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.

Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”

‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Cover photo: Michael Christopher Brown / Magnum, Cover design: Mary Austin Speaker

Roots, risk and resilience 

Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.

Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.

As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:

I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.

Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.

Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.

In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”

In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:

… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.

Passwords for a rising world

It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.

rufous hummingbird tail
Selasphorus rufus – rufous hummingbird tail, 1901
Source: birds.cornell.edu

It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…

Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.

Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”

Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”

Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”

Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Source: US geological Survey

Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”

Absence as form

It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.

In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:

“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”

Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”

Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Photo: Elizabeth Rush © 2018

In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”

Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”

As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”

Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”


Find out more

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is published by Milkweed Editions in the US, where you will also find a Reader’s Guide. You can read more of Elizabeth Rush’s writing, including excerpts from Rising, at elizabethrush.net.

Update: In June 2019, Public Books published an Elizabeth Rush interview by Elena Passarello, exploring lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines.