“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.
Read More
Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
Read More

“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. In the Spring 2018 Issue of Permaculture magazine, Mick explained: “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.
Read More
Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
Read More

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...