Filmmaker James Murray-White returns to ClimateCultures with his review of a recent event on ecopoetics and our responses toenvironmental crisis. The one-day meeting was held at GroundWork Gallery in Kings Lynn on 1st September.
approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes
Groundwork Gallery, run by powerhouse director Veronica Sekules, backs up its exhibitions of work focusing on the environment with events that deepen the discussion. This combination brings us in as participants, helping us to sharpen our understanding and to critically engage with the issues.
Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Arts and Ecopoetics Rise to the Challenge was one such bringing-together — the last of the 2018 season — with poets, academics, and ecological thinkers-and-doers gathering in a wonderful 14th-century building by the edge of the lapping River Ouse. This special event — organised with the British Ecological Society — gave us a day to dive deep, listen and engage with ideas of ecopoetics at the crossroads of conservation, restoration, and re-wilding. An opportunity to question all these options and find the best fit.
Ecopoetics and provocations
Curated by poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker, whose collaborative project on the disused Louth Canal is on display at Groundwork, the day divided into discussions on rewilding and on art or eco-poetic contexts. Andrew Watkinson, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, offered a provocation in his ‘reflections upon a changing environment’, reminding us of the ‘environment as natural capital’ approach that is so favoured by politicians and business leaders. He referred to the schism of thinking on this, as exemplified by leading green writers George Monbiot and Tony Juniper; it reminded me of a debate between the two men that I filmed at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2015.
What was refreshing about this presentation was Professor Watkinson’s deep engagement with poetry as a source of inspiration and knowledge, which he wove through his scientific explanations of the processes of change and the interactions within an ecological framework.
By bringing into his talk Cambridgeshire-poet John Clare, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrew gave a range and breadth to the provocation. And this came after renowned ecocritic and writer Richard Kerridge delivered a polemic on the world of ‘new’ nature writing: “Why is it difficult to write about environmental crisis?” he asked us; and “Where is climate change? Everywhere and tangibly no-where”.
Richard ranged from unpicking ideas of ‘adaptations of scale’ through to exploring the stories of ‘new materialism’, which (to quote Hannes Bergthaller, writing on Limits of Agency) “dissolves the singular figure … into the dense web of material relations.” Skilfully, he both beguiled and shocked his audience in this exploration of a new and uncharted territory and discipline, leaving us with the remark that ‘new nature writing’ “offers a refuge from modernity and the narrow social space.”
Jonathan Skinner, an American poet, ecocritic and academic at Warwick University, sought to find a middle way in his ‘poetics of the third landscape’: a gentle meander into and out of the edgelands. To those of us that walk them, these liminal spaces suggest exciting possibilities and subtleties. His description of the “intelligence of the weedy, where lifeforms, rhizomes or rooting plants exist for co-created futures” resonated with me. And his introduction of the phrase ‘entropology’ brought to mind a recent exploration of the Blackwater estuary in Essex where, alongside the decommissioned nuclear power plant, I discovered the old electricity generating station, now completely overcome with wild nature, trees and scrub of all description topping out above the metal and phantasmagoric shapes.
These three presentations in the morning set the scene for the day. Following on, artist Iain Biggs explored ecopoetics and art as ‘wild conversation’ through his work in deep mapping, and in explorations of the artist as “first and foremost, a deep listener”. This melted beautifully into writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s sharing of some of her projects, taking us into deep elemental knowledge, in Swims (2017) — poetry inspired by and written during wild swimming — and The Grassling (2019), a deep mapping memoir of three Devon fields that she and her family are connected with.
Her work — and then the subsequent session with readings from the featured writers — came as a refreshing tide of words that uplifted and delighted the audience. Down with the seals in the depths of the estuary flow, amongst the eco-poetics embodied in this day in Kings Lynn, in the deep county of Norfolk.
Find out more
James Murray-White is a writer and filmmaker whose recent work has been in the areas of art and neuroscience, applied anthropology and the lives of poets. You can discover more about his work via his ClimateCultures profile page. You can watch James’ film about John Clare at his Vimeo page. The George Monbiot and Tony Juniper debate he mentions took place at the New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford Arts Centre in 2015; his three-part film of the debate is available at Cambridge TV. James is GroundWork Gallery’s filmmaker in residence and you can see some of his films of artists at the gallery on their People page.
GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. The gallery’s exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The information on their Conserve? Restore? Rewild? event includes links for each of the day’s speakers.
Jonathan Skinner — one of the speakers at the event — has a short piece on What is Ecopoetry? at eco-poetry.org
The event was organised with the British Ecological Society. The Society and Norfolk Wildlife Trust also sponsored Regarding Nature, GroundWork Gallery’s photographic exhibition (23rd June – 16th September 2018). “Regarding Nature is an exhibition which tells some big stories about landscape. Through the eyes of French photographer Chrystel Lebas and her scientist predecessors in the early 20th century, it focusses on the plants and landscapes of the North Norfolk coast.”
It's a great pleasure to welcome new Member Wallace Heim with her first post for ClimateCultures. Wallace - a researcher and writer on performance and ecology - recently completed 'the sea cannot be depleted', her online project exploring the military exploitation of the Solway Firth. Here, she shares her reflections on the inspiration behind this powerful project and her creative process.
approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes
Outrage is compelling. It moves you. It flares around an event, lining up adversaries as it draws temporary certainties from the flux of life.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Estuary to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘customer’. The firings began in the 1980s, from the Scottish side, with the last firings in 2011 or 2013. The MOD justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’. Attempts to retrieve the shells have failed. Their locations are unknown.
Responses to this news slide easily into anger for the injustice of these firings and shock at their stupidity, alongside a desire for accountability or reparations by the military, which will not and cannot be met. But what happens when the clarity of outrage, and its certainties, get mixed up with everyday life? When they somehow bind with a place, when they merge and dissolve into it, like the radiating materials drifting in the Irish seas?
“No brink of the end of humanity was gazed over. It barely made the news … Thousands of years pissing in the sea with everything we can’t digest, all the rancid debris that we could throw in there, all of it, and now this … The military got it the wrong way around. They didn’t place the uranium. No. They placed this estuary. They made it into their place. They made it into their military nuclear sea," the Man says.
Sensing the insensible
‘the sea cannot be depleted’ is an online project, composed of three parts: a spoken word and sound piece for three voices, accompanied by essays and by documentation about the firings and the effects of Depleted Uranium. The sound piece is fictive, based on interviews and research. In it, a Man speaks from the Scottish side of the estuary, the firth, an area of cliffs, bays, granite and farms. A Woman speaks from the English side, flat lands of ancient peat, grasses and farms, around the headland from the civil-military nuclear industries of West Cumbria. And a Diver speaks as she enters the night sea:
“On the edge here, soft sand, bird tracks and worm casts and the plish of water on my bed-bare feet. More salt than fresh. Read the surface for danger. Go in, between heartbeats, mine and the sea’s … Tentacles brush my legs. Wrapping me in the softness of their sucking, jelly skins. They are curious about me. Me. Am I food? … Drifts of something cloud my eyes. Plankton wandering in from far seas. I swim in sex and food and sea talk.”
The form of the piece was shaped by my need to ‘hear’ the radiation, to have it enter somehow directly into the human ear. And by the negotiations of outrage and conflict that were needed in order to understand and express something of the turbulence of unknowable consequences and the transfiguration of uranium let loose in the continual, mixing tidal forces of an estuary.
Radiation cannot be heard, smelled or touched, but is known through the rattled clicks of the technologies that measure it and make it perceptible to humans. Those sounds are too familiar. I wanted to hear it and to represent it through the human voice, through its vibrations and resonances as well as through the articulations about the effects of knowing what has been buried. The music by Pippa Murphy, too, does not use conventional ‘nuclear’ sounds, but creates a melodic line, that holds, falls apart, dissolves, and reforms.
Nuclear issues are stark and divisive. My certainties are reasoned, ethical and emotive: I find these military actions unjustifiable, expressive of hubris and embedded in a global economy of harm. I had to relate those certainties to the government position which supports the use of Depleted Uranium, and to the scientific reports available, both by independent researchers and the military. The latest find that ‘uncertainty’ characterises what is possible to definitively measure; no one ‘knows’.
Against the against
I did not want to set out adversarial arguments between conflicting sides, as if that was a kind of balance or a reliable process towards truth. Nor did I want to hone the subject matter into something more solidly activist. Rather, for the Man and the Woman who reflect on their relation to the sea and the firings, I wanted to keep to the outrage, but as it is compromised and embedded in everyday life.
The action in theatre, by historical conventions, moves with the forces of adversarial human conflict; two sides, with variations. But theatre and performance have, for the past decades, developed other dramaturgical strategies, broadly categorised as the postdramatic, for creating flow, mood, character and vibrancy. The ‘two-sides’ device has seeped away from some performance practices as it doesn’t adequately allow for a genuine expression of a situation or condition. At the same time, in ecological thinking, the entwining of human conflicts with environments, waters, lands, other living beings, or perceptions of nature – are complicating the order offered by adversarial conflict and requiring other ways to comprehend and address what is a condition of life, one that is pervasive, intractable, characterised by uncertainty and a lack of lasting solutions.
The firings were a rehearsal for war and were hostile fire on a home sea. How can one understand the slow corrosion that endures? What does it mean for a place, a people, to cohere with the unseen objects of war? How do you make a life with, or disavow, the symptoms of the civil-military nuclear complex? How does the knowable coalesce with the not-knowable?
“How do you keep safe? The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured seaweed and crabs and grit and urine. What they forgot was the sea. They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women. It’s probably all right. It has to be. We have to live as if it was. The swells of silences, they hold us tight … What adds up, what counts on this coast is what keeps the working public paying taxes. That’s what keeps things quiet … The sea will loosen and unravel all that we can’t talk about," the Woman says.
Crossing the threshold
The Diver is a different kind of force, ambivalent between the imaginal and the real. She speaks of her sensed perceptions as she repeatedly dives below the sea surface. She sets out with promise and high delight but stays too long. She passes that threshold when coming back would be possible, making a loose association with the nuclear dream and the impossible scramble to return to a world without its waste.
“My body curls and tumbles. It joins the pock-marked hard things that roll along the bed. We’re a pulse of moving things. Another brush of something like dust. My skin starts to bleach with it. I’m burning, down here with no light, no air … I cool my body in a garden of soft-skinned creatures … Everything moves, the living with the dead. Lives within lives. Our cells are the lenses through which we see our futures. We are all transparent to the longer waters of the sea ... ”
The uranium was pulled by brown hands from hot, dusty places, fabricated and made into rich pieces of tradeable merchandise. The military sent those high-priced shells out over the miles of waiting water. In the instant that they touched the sea surface they were waste. As they bedded into the soft sands, they began their dissolution into sea salts and the human imagination. ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ takes off from what seems like discrete events, but those events are only part of a long arc that has no end.
Find out more
‘the sea cannot be depleted’ was written and produced by Wallace Heim, with music and sound composition by Pippa Murphy and the voices of Camille Marmié (Diver), Vincent Friell (Man) and Lisa Howard (Woman). The project was funded by Future’s Venture Foundation, Manchester.
You can hear the full dramatised audiopiece for ‘the sea cannot be depleted’, and view Wallace’s extensive research journal and other background documents about Depleted Uranium, the MOD’s firings into the Solway Firth and the area itself, at the sea cannot be depleted. And you can explore more of Wallace’s work via her ClimateCultures profile page.
Wallace has also shared a number of references you might like to explore:
Heim, Wallace (2017). ‘Theatre, conflict and nature’ in Performance and Ecology. What Can Theatre Do? Ed. Carl Lavery. London: Routledge. also in: Green Letters. Studies in Ecocriticism. (2016) 20:3. The journal is behind an academic firewall, and the book is exorbitantly priced. Please email me if you would like a pdf of the article: home[at]wallaceheim[dot]com
In part 1 of this two-parter, writer Mary Woodbury outlined some of the common ground that helps 'define' eco-fiction: "not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive ... Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space." In this concluding part, Mary looks at how this super-genre has grown and diversified in recent years. And her own story returns to her family trip to Ireland, where we began part 1.
You can read part 1 of A History of Eco-fiction here.
The Canopy Expands
Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the New York Times, Wai Chee Dimock stated in There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea,
“This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.”
The world seems less and less hopeful. So many crises exist now that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them. We are reminded in the news, every moment and every day, of school shootings, shaky politics, poverty, starvation, refugee crises, murder, racism, rape, sexual harassment, and hate. Authors take these issues into consideration when building stories, and some of the biggest crises (which don’t necessarily make their way into the news: climate change, extinction, and dwindling wilderness and biodiversity) are subjects making their way into plots, world-building, and tension among characters. We haven’t seen anything like our world before. We imagine the wilderness so that we can hang onto what’s left. We want to write about our world before its best parts are gone. In fiction, there is desperation to cling to unlogged forests, clean oceans, sparkling rivers, vast deserts, and even just backyard ecosystems that mesmerize us. I have sat at a lake in the mountains of British Columbia watching minnows for hours, amazed.
I run a monthly spotlight on authors who explore climate change in fiction, and have had many interesting discussions. One was with John Atcheson, who stated:
“I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.”
Here is the gist: fiction plays an important part in helping readers grasp large concepts that are simply numbers and bytes in the news. Good storytelling, which is not didactic, is an art form that allows the reader to not just escape but reflect, care, and cope. Stephen Siperstein, who contributed poems to Winds of Change, an anthology of stories about climate change that I published in 2015, said that many do not give climate change a thought and that there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without us acting, things will take care of themselves). According to Stephen, “This is the ‘new normal’ of our cognitive and affective lives, and for us to figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.” Bill McKibben preceded this idea in Grist, back in April 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art.”
A short note on Dystopia and Utopia
“Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.
Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia
Dystopian literature may be hopeful, and utopian literature may present problems it doesn’t imagine.
I have noted often that eco-fiction stories are not just frightening but may offer hope. Often we are the antagonist, but redemption transforms us into the protagonist. We can do good together, even in times of crisis. Despite the dismal forecast for how climate change will continue to affect us and all other species on the planet, the strongest stories seem to happen when we “feed the good wolf” — when we look up, face our mistakes, apologize for them, and fix them … when we do what’s right. And what’s right, in this case, is also becoming what’s cool!
The concept of solarpunk is also a positive for literature; it’s not just a fiction genre but a hopeful aesthetic. I interviewed one of its stewards, Adam Flynn, who said:
“As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently).”
‘Wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking’
Ecologically oriented fiction is growing, and it’s entirely organic. Nobody says “hey, here’s a cool genre — write in it!” That’s not how fiction works. What is happening is that people naturally worry about the state of our world, and our future — just like people have been doing from the beginning of time — and some people tell stories about these things. When these things include an exploration of ecological systems around us, and how we relate to them, eco-literature is born and also is evolving with the shaky times. Running eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of books posted at the site, and while it is not exhaustive, almost 600 books are listed. The project is nearing its fifth birthday (on August 13th, 2018), and it’s evident that the number of fiction writers who fashion tales from stark realities is growing. This site has turned into a lifetime project, and in continuing with this study, I have grown fond of the diversity of storytelling within eco-fiction — it’s the most important thing to me, because the authors are all unique with their life experiences. They draw from different places, languages, and cultures, enriching this body of literature with fresh voices.
I always think back on Wai Chee Dimock’s words on how eco-fiction is evolving: wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking. This description is so apt. Authors are writing, and thus also documenting, the story of how humans evolve in what seems to be a mass extinction. The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity. Various modes of literature place ourselves in this epoch, which is full of sorrow, ghosts, dwindling biodiversity, plastic oceans, and death. It’s also full of embracing the wild within us. I chatted with the wise poet Lorna Crozier, who remarked:
“If we’re lucky enough to get into the wilderness, our bodies and our spirits crackle with life. Our legs on a trail feel stronger. They become animal again. Our sense of smell is honed. Raven speaks to us in one of the 200 dialects ornithologists have been able to measure. When a grizzly inhales my scent, I live for a moment inside his body, inside his mind. How can I not be changed? To get inside myself in a deep and meaningful way, where I might, if I’m lucky, find words to say what can’t be said, I have to get outside. I have to be larger than myself. Rain-drenched, I have to breathe in the wolf, the grizzly, breathe in the wild beauty of the world. And I have to figure out what to do to protect it — to stop all those human things that are causing such harm. The most optimistic part of me hopes the poems are one small way to do that.”
And the most optimistic part of me hopes that fiction will accomplish this.
Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer’s body of new weird fiction novels that are perfect examples of wild and breathtaking storytelling. I referenced his work in my three-part series at SFFWorld.com, Exploring the Ecological Weird. When I talked with Jeff about the Southern Reach Trilogy, he said:
“I’ve always explored weird real-life biology in my fiction, especially in the context of fungi, which often seems alien in its details. These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal — North Florida wilderness — and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.”
As we walk along the heavy Fleet Streets of our time — as W B Yeats did in his day, thinking of The Lake Isle of Innisfree — it’s not enough to dream about nine bean rows, linnet’s wings, a bee-hive, and a small cabin made of wattles and clay; though there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are on the global Fleet Street now, one that is being extinguished. Authors are telling our story, and in some way it’s an old story, but in many ways it’s a new one, now that the Anthropocene has been recognized.
The reason we went to Ireland is because my mother’s relatives came from there long ago, and it was her dream to visit the country someday. Dad, unfortunately, had early onset Parkinson’s disease, and he retired early and never was able to travel far. After he died, I relied on my mother more and more for her old mountain ways and advice (she grew up in the Appalachian hills with parents who lived off the land), and my husband and I wanted to take her on a lifelong dream trip to her ancestor’s homeland, a place she had dreamed of visiting since a child.
I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since we visited. I see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns. I see the big ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but the closer the boat got to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere. I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear the cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong North Atlantic winds. No matter where we go there are verdant fields and groves of trees and cows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a faerie may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like the field of literature called eco-fiction.
Find out more
You can read part 1 of a History of Eco-fiction here.
You can find out more about the Holocene Extinction — also known as “the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction … the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity” — in this Wikipedia article.
You can also read author David Thorpe’s ClimateCultures posts on utopian and dystopian fictions via his profile page in our Members Directory.
ClimateCultures welcomes new Member Mary Woodbury with the first in her two-part series on the development of eco-fiction.
Eco-fiction, Mary suggests, is "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres."
You can read part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction here.
When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.
You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.
And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.
If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.from The Stolen Child, W B Yeats
What is Eco-fiction?
One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:
The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):
“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”
Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history. Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds.
A short note on climate change in fiction
These days, many terms have sprung up to address the ‘hyperobject’ that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it.
Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:
“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system. Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system: Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life? Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”
So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy. According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:
“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”
There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.
We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.
One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection.
In part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary will look at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness – and human connection to these things – into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.
Find out more
Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.
She wrote a three-part series for SFFWorld.com: Exploring the Ecological Weird (see links to other parts in the article). And you can read these interviews with Ecolit Books and Writing Forums, where Mary talks about her work and inspiration as a writer and publisher and about environmental literature.
Mary also wrote three articles on climate change and storytelling for the Free Word Centre — where, of course, you can also find the writers’ panel discussions and more from the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts climate change events for writers, which I helped TippingPoint organise at the Free Word Centre. Which also gives me another opportunity to plug the excellent anthology of all the poems, stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from these events, published by Cambria Books as a free ebook.
For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece:
This Wikipedia article introduces the work of Timothy Morton, including his concept of a hyperobject. (You can hear a Guardian interview with Timothy Morton via the January 2018 listing on our Views from Elsewhere page: Why we need to rethink climate change, with Timothy Morton).
The Eco-fiction anthology was published in 1971 by Washington Square Press, edited by John Stadler.
In just a couple of weeks, the call for proposals for art.earth's new creative symposium will close and the programme for this three day November event will begin to take shape: 'Adorning our new biosphere: how to love the postcarbon world.' Here, I offer my take on what's being asked of artists and others - and invite ClimateCultures Members and followers to take part.
In a social and economic landscape where the ‘state of the art’ — technologically and politically — for supposedly environment-friendly energy solutions may be literally “a scar on a loved landscape, as much as the causes and impacts of climate change are a scar on our psyches and consciences”, what is the role of the artist in bringing a more ecologically attuned sense to moving us away from the industrial model that has got us into this predicament? Can art, creativity, imagination actually help us to break free of our seemingly unbreakable pattern of thought? Something somehow in the spirit of the provocation Albert Einstein is supposed to have offered: “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
Learning to love
This is my reading of the central question behind art.earth’s call for proposals for its November symposium, Adorning our new biosphere: how to love the postcarbon world. That title reads as a startling proposition; we’ve become so used to a world where the very word ‘biosphere’ seems to suggest something at peril from humanity that the notion that we — our species, our own lives — might somehow adorn it could be a form of heresy. In the conventional spectrum of environmental consciousness, at either extreme you either fall into the camp where technology and the better angels of Homo economicus will ‘save the world’, and the inevitable compromises that have to be made are simply the cost of progress; or the camp where human intervention is so poisonous that the imperative must be to find ways to withdraw more or less gracefully from ‘nature’ and let it advance once more. In the middle lie many flavours of environmentalism, and then of course there are all the positions which pay little or no attention to the crises, or attack the very idea of crisis at all. So, what is this ‘adorning’, a word that seems almost medieval? How can it apply to the ‘modern’ world of science, politics, technology?
And it is mediaeval — a Middle English word anyway, from Old French and Latin. ‘To dress’, to adorn is to add beauty to, enhance, or make more pleasing: a dangerous word perhaps for humans to deploy within the natural world, in this day and age? But the clue, of course, is in the subtitle that art.earth and its partners — Plymouth University’s Sustainable Earth Institute and Ulsan National Institute of Science & Technology’s Science Walden — have chosen for the event. Learning to love. But to love what?
“In learning to love the postcarbon world, we must first learn to love and care for the carbon-dominated world we are attempting to heal,” the call suggests. It’s a moral proposition, but also a pragmatic one; it’s our relationship with(in) the environment that we need to change if we’re to change the outcome.
Love in the post carbon world — love for the post carbon world, now — is to love the world in a way that will help shape it to be the best we can imagine (or in its direction at least) and to recognise that, as the quote from writer William Gibson has it, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The post carbon world too is already here, but if it’s to be better realised, better distributed, in a better relationship with itself then we must care also for the carbon world — the here and now — and thereby change it. That is part of the frame for this event.
At the 2014 Weatherfronts climate change conference for writers, author Jay Griffiths quoted a 1944 poem by Alun Lewis, In Hospital: Poona. Near the end of the Second World War, the poet lay in a hospital bed in India where he was stationed, a third of a world away from his lover back in Wales:
Last night I did not fight for sleepBut lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.And sixty degrees of longitude besideVanished as though a swan in ecstasyHad spanned the distance from your sleeping side.And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care ...
In Hospital: Poona, Alun Lewis
The ‘parish of my care’ — and your own parish will be personal to you, each one different but overlapping, intermingled — Jay suggested is the ambit of what we can each best achieve, but can encompass the wider world we have ambitions to work for.
“What we have done to our climate, to our planet, lies at the heart of the political and social problems we face,” the art.earth call continues. “We seem incapable of addressing this wicked problem partly because we tend to look inward rather than outward, because we are careless rather than caring.”
What good is art, anyway?
You will have your own answers to that question. In a 2017 piece for the Tate website, Climate Change: can artists have any influence, novelist J M Ledgard asserted that one reason why the answer to this question must be ‘Yes’ is “there are not many alternatives to seeing intensely. The scope of the ruination is so grave and fast it is difficult for the polity to conceive of. Economists, philosophers and neuroscientists have all demonstrated that humans have a limited capacity to project themselves into the future. But art can move effortlessly outside of time and space, highlighting the absurdity of naming the year 2017 on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. Our classical ancestors were locked to land and sky by miasmas, storms, portents, stars, solstices, harvests. Art … various and ambitious … can bring us back to that place. That is how art will inform the debate.”
And, as the art.earth call suggests, “Surely the artist’s ability to stir up and question societal thinking, challenge preconceptions, and assert new forms of beauty and aesthetic reasoning must play a role … So this is a call to action for artists, designers, engineers. ecologists, policy-makers and other thinkers to turn their attention to a world in need of a change of argument, one that can adorn our new biosphere not only with aesthetic pleasure but with a beauty of equality and social equity.”
“We need a new conversation: welcome to our new biosphere.”
I’ve experienced two art.earth events — 2016’s Feeding the Insatiable and last year’s In Other Tongues — and am looking forward to my third, Liquidscapes, just a couple of weeks from now. Each time, a wonderfully eclectic but cohesive programme of speakers and workshop leaders has been matched with many thoughtful and stimulating personal encounters with a range of artists, scholars and activists of many kinds. Having helped organise several TippingPoint events in the previous few years, discovering art.earth at just the time that that involvement was drawing to a close was very fortunate timing for me; and all my TippingPoint and art.earth experiences have been highly formative in my own thinking and work, not least in deciding to set up ClimateCultures last year.
It’s a privilege to spend three days in the company of so many creative and curious minds, and to soak in the ideas and possibilities in the environs of the Dartington estate just outside Totnes. So, for me, it’s a double privilege to have been invited to be part of the organising committee for Adorning our new Biosphere. I can’t wait to see the programme that emerges from all the ideas that this latest call stimulates. I hope that all ClimateCultures Members and readers of this site will head straight to the full text of the call and submit a proposal of your own or encourage others to do so.
The invitation is for “any ideas that inspire you and which you think may have a place during this event … We would particularly welcome proposals from artists, writers and other makers as well as panels or interviews or other discursive formats. Please bear in mind that the event takes place in a particular environment: Dartington is a 900-acre mixed estate that includes modern and ancient woodland, riverside with swimming, open pasture, formal gardens, and other outdoor sites where people can meet and work in groups. We particular encourage proposals that take advantage of this context.”
Find out more
You can read Alun Lewis’ In Hospital: Poona in full at Seren Books blog, among many other sites, and you can listen to Jay Griffith’s reading of it as part of her participation in the writers’ panel at TippingPoint’s Weatherfronts 2014 conference at the Free Word Centre. Jay’s contributions start at 45 minutes in, and the previous speakers – Ruth Padel, Maggie Gee and Gregory Norminton are all well worth hearing too.