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.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.


2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 6 minutes video 


This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.

***

For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods. 


I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.

It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.

My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.


And socially engaged art practice?

This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.

Reimagining place

So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.

Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.

A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.

An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school. 

machairart film short from Laura Donkers on Vimeo.

As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors. 

Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.

This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.

The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.

Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.

My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.

Making space for climate conversations 

I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.

Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.

Looking beyond the west   

My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.

I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence. 

To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.

This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts. 


Find out more

The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices.

The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development.

Laura Donkers
Laura Donkers
An artist-researcher who develops interpretive and participatory positions within the community, contributes to eco-social actions, and creates interactive artworks to disseminate the community's embodied knowledge.
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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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“Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth

Small Earth - art, land and sky at Snape Photograph by James Murray-White 2018Filmmaker James Murray-White describes taking part in the Small Earth conference within the stunning beauty of Snape. At this special event, psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.


1,490 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Get the tools you need to understand where we’re currently living: in the belly of the beast.”

– Alastair McIntosh

The starting question for this powerful converging and sharing of minds in the wonderful location of Snape was “Can we return to living within the terms of Earth’s ecosphere?” And this question was minutely probed and dissected over an intense, sometimes gruelling, sometimes uplifting and ultimately rejuvenating four days. The choice of location was sublime: a place I know well and often regret I don’t spend enough time in — a place of water, reed beds, and the wonderful vast skies with multiple colour gradations to dream within; absolutely a setting to contemplate the miracle of our time on the blue dot of our earth.

Small Earth, big skies at Snape. Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Small Earth, big skies at Snape. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

A miracle indeed, but a miracle that our human species has been bent on destroying — and this convergence was aimed at therapists and psychologists with a passion to serve the planet through their work.

Here was a chance to listen, to talk and share, and also to grieve for the pain of the world.

Reclaiming what gives life 

To start each day, psychotherapist James Barratt offered us all the opportunity to share into a social dreaming matrix: a space to hear and reflect upon each others’ dreams. It feels particularly useful when a group has come together for a few days and is going through a process together, on any level. I found this powerful group process took us very deeply into our collective unconscious, and it was a strong learning to hear dreams and then have the chance to collectively unpick what they might be saying: finding threads and applying our experience to them. 

As one of the few non-therapists attending, I dipped deeply in and needed some time to dip out. I found that it touched into lots of the work I’ve done since an MSc in Human Ecology at the (sadly now defunct) Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh some years back, and it was an honour to connect again with Gaelic shaman of the CHE and other institutions, Dr Alastair McIntosh — a keynote speaker.

McIntosh’s lecture on Saturday, Reclaiming what gives life, was full of his pain and passion for the human community: quoting psalms, Shakespeare, Gaelic poets; taking us with him on his journey across the island of Harris, and into the dark heart of the world of advertising, particularly the pernicious evil of the tobacco industry.

Drawing on his comments in the film Consumed, which opened the conference, he asked of us to call back the soul, by “looking at the nature of the belly of the beast”, that “the place of our calling is in the belly of the beast — don’t let it take us out of our natural joy.” The way forward is to “open up to that marginal realm where I suggest a healing will come.”

Small Earth, life abundant at Snape. Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Small earth, life abundant at Snape. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

A highlight of the conference was meeting with naturalist Chris Packham, who shared ways to achieve a different way of thinking about our place within the ecosphere. Ultimately, he said, if we truly tap into our human capacity for altruism, restraint and care, we might survive: “once we recognise that we are just a keystone in our own ecological microsystems.”

Following on from this in a public lecture to four hundred of us, and accompanied by his dog Scratchy, Packham laid it on the line for humanity: “Summon the bravery. Look at it cold hard and in the face. It is an ecological apocalypse. We must act now.”

Other notable speakers included Jungian analyst Andrew Fellows; researcher, writer and transformational coach Mick Collins; novelist Melissa Harrison; and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust.

Making the Transformocene

Andrew Fellows started by playing us a song of the Earth from a Siberian shaman: calling us into the Earth and reminding us of our belonging. Combining hard fact — that human activity is adding heat to the atmosphere at the rate of four Hiroshima explosions every second, and that two years ago the global human call for air-conditioning overtook our call for heating — with an analyst’s perspective, he said: “We hang (in this ecosphere) by a thin thread, and that thread is man’s psyche”. Fellows spoke passionately to our failings and our human frailties — preparing us perhaps for McIntosh’s attempts to lift us spiritually.

Mick Collins spoke to what he names the Transformocene: that age which transforms and changes within the recent and the new. This draws upon the very necessary shadow work that humanity must undertake, which Collins calls us “to do with depth.” Naming himself a ‘wounded transformer’, speaking with great passion and, as described in conversations afterwards, coming from a rich discursive life of facing inner crises and awakenings, he is emerging as an important figure in our movement for change.

I relished coming back to creativity with writer Melissa Harrison, whose conviction she says comes from being part of “the last generation that was able to play and be outside.” That reminded me of David Bond’s 2013 documentary Project Wild Thing, which uses the diminishing statistic, from his mother’s 80% spent outdoors, his own 50% outdoors playtime, to his inner-City kids’ mere 3%, as the starting place to advertise the joys of being outdoors within the world. I looked after a friend’s kids the night after returning from Small Earth and was shocked that they were up at 6 am, devouring screen time and off in distant virtual lands of warfare and commodity.

Melissa Harrison inspired too: “I can hold both hope and pain at the loss of species and changing climate, but it’s painful. Why not try to hold hope?” She suggested that we all adopt our own home patches to protect and to closely observe, if we are not already in this act of service: “this sense of responsibility implies that we are the main players in this. Keep it cared for and vibrant.”

Small Earth - art, land and sky at Snape Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Art, land and sky at Snape Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Gaining a calm presence on small Earth

Mary-Jane Rust gave an exemplary presentation that, for me, rounded off the few days and was grounded in doing, reflection and practice. With examples of eco-psychotherapy projects that re-engage folk with the earth, she spoke of “attending to our rage” at what we see and hear in terms of destruction and change and, with this, “becoming aware of our own emotional centre we gain a calm.” That presence, she suggests, “delivers us the present moment, and enables an attitude of reverence, humility, and an apology — to the Earth”.

These talks were followed by a range of follow-up afternoon workshops. I particularly loved the chance to forage for leaves, sticks and objects outside, and return to put them all together within an art-making workshop facilitated by Marion Green.

And I appreciated the buildings and cultural-creative environment of the Maltings, coming back to life after the end of their industrial use. The stunning beauty of Snape: the reeds, absorbing CO2, the River Alde flowing up to the buildings, and the vast East Anglian sky, all reminded me that we live in a beautiful world. It’s up to each and every one of us to deeply engage, live a life in full service to the ecosphere, as well as to the human population and all other species that inhabit it too.

My thanks to the organisers, presenters, and fellow participants of Small Earth for this opportunityMay these few days enable us to continue to serve, and to quote Mick Collins, to live a life “in discipleship to nature, and to service.”


Find out more

The Small Earth conference took place at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, from 8th to 11th November 2018. It was organised by CONFER, an independent organisation established by psychotherapists in 1998 to provide innovative, challenging and inspiring continuing educational events for psychotherapists, psychologists and other mental health workers. 

Mick Collins’ idea of the Transformocene is explored in his book, The Visionary Spirit, and in this interview for Permaculture: “We’re living in a time when we’re standing at the threshold of the Anthropocene – an era where humans have had an impact on the Earth’s eco-systems. In this way, the Anthropocene reflects the Spirit of the Times (zeitgeist), which highlights the degrading ways we’ve been treating the planet. In contrast, the idea for the Transformocene Age came to me after reading Carl Jung’s Red Book, which chronicles his meetings with the Spirit of the Depths. Therefore, the emergence of the Transformocene is cultivated via a deeper connection to the wisdom from the collective unconscious and through our encounters with the sacred.”

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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Wildfire and Fox

Writer Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Canada — a town that was born during the 1903 mineral rush. She shares a powerful account of signals to be detected in Cobalt’s burning forests and the cry of a fox.


1,490 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes + 4 minutes video 


Brit’s post is the second in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

Wildfire and fox: dispatches from forests burning in Cobalt, Ontario

Summer 2018. Woken up by the smell of smoke. Summer night and the windows are thrown open, the wind sending traces of Temagami forest’s burning drifting into my room. The forests behind Elk Lake are on fire too. I don’t know it yet, not then in the night, but so is the faraway Arctic Circle. Does taiga smell the same as birch and jack pine when it’s burning?

Forests burning, Ontario
Forests burning, Ontario
Photograph: Valerie Hosteller © 2018

It’s disorienting, the darkness, the smoke, at first I thought it was the stoked ashes from a dream, but then there is a shrieking and I am fully awake. Then I hear it again, riding these night breezes thick with carbon, insistent and piercing. It is, I think, fox.

I am used to her screams now — but still they are uncanny. She is calling through the darkness, and we all listen, me, dog, cat. At the window now listening. Is she far away or close to the house? Impossible to tell, the spooky cries passed from tree to tree. Just like a banshee’s wails along the valley. No wonder folks believed in such beings. The sounds tonight, stirred and mixed with the smoke, maybe belong biologically to fox, but are otherworldly too, spiritually something else.

But what? At one time, people might have recognized all of this with more ease. Folks had their nature spirits, saw forests teeming with magic. It would be standing room only on a night like this, what with the burnings and the keening.

Could be time to try and find those things again — the beings and the creatures that we have forgotten. That we can’t see anymore. That we cannot hear anymore. Cannot hear that sublime singing of the trees, each one with their own song, cannot hear either their ultrasonic distress signals when they are parched.

We used to listen to trees, talk to them even (and not in a ‘let’s put on Pachelbel and be nice to the jade plant’ kind of way). When nature was magic we would turn to its wisdom, seek solace from oak trees, leave tokens at deadfall for the spirits. The forest was not something to be managed, not a site of resource extraction, not a source of consumables. They gave us things, of course, the forest and the fields. Timber, firewood, plants, medicine, game and berries, but also wisdom, guidance in surviving, companionship. Everyone needed parts of everyone else.

Living so close, paying such attention, it changes the relationship. Like being in love.

But we can’t be close if we are on the outside looking in. As it is now, we are only visitors, not companions, equals, comrades in arms. Removing ourselves from nature, setting humans apart from that teeming forest of magic, was probably a mistake. Probably has landed us in this global fever.

Torpid waters. Coral reefs swooning with anaemia. Bring me my smelling salts.

Little creeks dry up, creeks for frogs and sprites. The sprites, of course, went extinct long ago. Many frogs are likely to follow. The triggers for frog mating are temperature and rainfall. All this dry, all this heat? Frog romance taking a beating.

So maybe the separation of the human from the non-human is a boundary or barrier we should try to dismantle. To see what seeps through. Because all those binaries — they are helpful in sorting objects and events into categories, organizing things. But we aren’t sorting our closets, we’re trying to salvage our world. None of them, human/non-human, life/death, magic/science, irrational/rational, can help me understand what fox is trying to say.

I can only hazard a guess:

fox says it is ultrasonic in the woods tonight,
wonders why can’t I hear it.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Photograph: Sue Nielsen © 2018

Note: Brit has also recorded a special video of her reading Wildfire and Fox, published simultaneously with ClimateCultures as The Summer the Planet Burned: Radio Free Cobalt:

***

Wildfire and Fox — context

Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Ontario, a town that was born during Ontario’s last mineral rush in 1903 — a silver rush that was pretty much over by 1919. Current population: around 1100.  http://cobalt.ca/visitors/history/

Temagami is a world-renowned tourist destination known for its wilderness lakes and old growth forests. It is also home, and always has been, of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai on Bear Island. Elk Lake, a town of around 500 people, survives mostly on its timber mill. 

Many sources which have expanded our understanding of the science on trees over recent years. Two interesting articles are: Trees Make Noises, and Some of Those Sounds Are Cries for Help by Rachel Nuwer for The Smithsonian (16/4/13), and Trees Have Their Own Songs, by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (4/4/17). As the Smithsonian article points out, “knowing what kinds of noises trees in distress produce means researchers may be able to target those most in need of emergency waterings during droughts.”

The Atlantic article is a review of David George Haskell’s 2013 book The Forest Unseen.

You can find out more about the forests burning in northern Ontario in this article from CBC, Radio Canada (19/7/18) by Benjamin Aubé, Some provincial parks in Temagami area closed due to forest fires could re-open soon, which reports a quadrupling of forest fires in the region. The fire was called the North Bay 72 and a good part was on the traditional territory of Temagami First Nation. You can read and hear a disturbing report on forests burning across the Arctic in this piece from CBC, ‘We ain’t seen anything yet’: Even the Arctic is burning as wildfires rage around the world’; it features an excellent interview with Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.  

The lands manager (Robin Koistinen) from Temagami First Nation said of the recent fire, on Facebook, “Mother Nature did some major housecleaning! In recent memory, no one knows of a larger fire on nDaki Menan, almost 28,000 hectares, there are 10,000 hectares in a Township! A township is 6 miles by 6 miles or 10 km by 10 km! So figure out the size of this fire in Square Kim’s, or miles! Big big Fire.” Her Facebook post includes this video footage flying over the damage from the fires. 

Sue Nielsen, who took the photograph of the fox, is reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, The Temiskaming Speaker. She takes wildlife photography around the area.

Brit Griffin
Brit Griffin
Author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries.
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Signals from the Edge

See Signals from the Edge for other contributions to this series.

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? ClimateCultures offers members a challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind but we overhear by chance; an artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create -- image, short text, sound, storyboard, dream sequence, or combination of any of these or something other – it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. 

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time, in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. 

What edge does your signal represent? It might be a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing...