A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

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.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland

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.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

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. 


A History

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.

Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905). Courtesy, Wiki Commons.

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:

Adorning Our New Biosphere

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 sleep
But 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 beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had 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.

The Tate website article Climate Change: Can artists have any influence? with J M Ledgard also featured critic and arts correspondent Alastair Smart (whose answer was ‘No’).

 

Art, Rise Up!

We welcome artist Ottavia Virzi to ClimateCultures with her account of Art Rise Up, a new creative collective that brings art and activism together for environmental protection. 

Ottavia describes their recent intervention in support of the campaign to halt opencast coal mining, using art to engage cultural meaning.

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

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

Creative intervention

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

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

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

Cultural meaning

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

Pont Valley masks
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

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

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

More-than-human community

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

All images: Art Rise Up © 2018

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

 

Find out more

Ottavia Virzi is a set and costume designer focusing on sustainability, heritage crafts and social history, and you can find her work at her website and on Instagram via her ClimateCultures Directory page.

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

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

 

 

The Ocean as Abject: Painting as Installation

In this welcome return by one of ClimateCultures' earliest contributors, visual artist Mary Eighteen brings us up to date with her collaboration with video artist (and fellow ClimateCultures Member) Julien Masson. In the earlier post - The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement - she explored how their project "invites viewers to imagine a world where the ocean, as we know it, is on the trajectory to extinction. Both painting and video are presented together, to accentuate this experience." Here, Mary focuses on the concepts of framing within painting and video as a means to provide the visual encounter with abjection.

Our project is ready to launch in terms of seeking the correct exhibition space. The appropriation of Kristeva’s abjection, by reversing the abject as human trauma and positing it within the world of oceanic trauma, remains central to the work.

When preparing or proposing ecological scenarios for an exhibition that invites the spectator to view and consider the abjection of our oceans, it is important that our frame itself also challenges the oceanic problems facing humanity. Both of us have explored this in relation to the idea of the architectural space provided for our proposed exhibition.

The viewer and the frame

Our further research into spectatorship, regarding the viewer and the frame, responds to Paul Sharit’s concept of “presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at a painting.” (1) Therefore, for The Ocean as Abject, I have as a painter responded to a process of painting as installation, so that spectatorship is addressed not as an observational exercise, but as a concept of thought in terms of viewer participation. To this end the viewer is invited to contemplate both video and painterly installation within the structure of the frame.

In my previous post I presented my painting Abjection 1 and said:

“I have produced three further paintings which are narrow (70cm wide), and in two vertical sections. With a nod towards installation the paintings will each sit on a set of steps that will be in line with the canvas and flush with the wall.”

Since then the steps have been made and suitably sprayed black with car spray paint.  It can be seen from the images here that the paintings aligned with the steps are moving towards installation. The steps are symbolic of a possible sixth extinction, and of the steps we need to make to prevent such an occurrence. The frame therefore challenges spectatorship on two levels. The steps incite interest by deconstructing formal notions of the frame. In doing so, the viewer is invited to question further the purpose of the artwork. Subsequently they must consider the powerful insights evoked by the exhibition.

Abjection 2
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

Steps to the future

The three paintings — Abjection 2, Abjection 3, Abjection 4 — are the beginning of a body of work that embraces this notion of the frame. While the top smaller sections on all three (70cm x 60cm) make a reference to landscape, albeit in an abstracted manner, the lower long canvases (70cm x 122cm), suggest a disruption of flow that symbolises a world where meaning has started to collapse. The steps are a prelude to that plausible collapse and invite the spectator to consider this conundrum. They make reference to both ecological concerns as well as exploring the art object in relation to the frame.

Abjection 3
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

While the paintings — unlike video — are static, the steps are a move away from the manner in which a canvas is so often traditionally presented. This could be further investigated by also interrogating the way in which painting can be displayed on a wall. After his death in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly’s last paintings were exhibited at Mathew Marks Gallery in New York (May 5th to June 25th 2017). In his critique of the exhibition, Terence Troullot shares Branden Joseph’s quote on the artist, “The wall is part of the painting and always has been.” (2) Troullot’s own summary of Kelly’s painting White Diagonal Curve (2015) suggests that “a crescent shaped white canvas set against an all-white partition wall, seems to be part of the background, and yet escaping from it as well, outwardly moving in all directions.” (3) In relation to Troullot’s observation The Ocean as Abject makes it essential that frame as well as painted image emanates the idea of a sullied ecology. This is to ensure an enlightened spectatorship, by presenting painting via a disrupted surface that not only interrogates the viewer but also the architectural space within which it is exhibited. By ‘disrupted surface’ I mean that, in my case, the nature of displaying a painting is challenged by the addition of the steps.

Painting, video and architecture

Similarly, Julien Masson’s video for The Ocean as Abject (which can seen in the earlier post) was initially presented as a concept in three parts. It was suggested that the video would work well as a series of slow panning shots stacked (in strata), on one screen or in succession. This makes me think of montage and the whole idea of assembly or editing. In his thesis Eisenstein’s Theory on Montage and Architecture Jeffrey M Todd states that “Montage then deals with the combination of several dissimilar elements which through their assemblage establish new meaning “(4) For me this statement elaborates the purpose of our proposed exhibition. The Ocean as Abject juxtaposes painting and video for the purpose of evoking an ecological awareness for the spectator, and this assemblage as installation uses the designated architectural space to convey meaning and purpose via the frame.

Abjection 4
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

“If as Eisenstein suggests, film and by extension, moving image installation descends down one line from architecture, then another branch must necessarily proceed from painting, that other creature of duration.” (5) Within the historic links of architecture and painting, punctuated by the more recent mercurial rise of video art and installation, The Ocean as Abject will in the end be defined by the architectural space provided. Within this space, spectatorship must then focus on the frame in order to transcend the meaning and purpose that lies beyond the frames presented.

Together, Julien and I have created work that aligns a relationship between video and painting, but we have also considered work that has the flexibility to relate to the architectural space that it will be exhibiting in. In her book Installation and the Moving Image, Catherine Elwes says “There are obvious continuities across both practises arising from formal considerations — both moving image and painting organise pictorial elements: shapes, textures, colours, light and dark into readable signs, for the most part defined by the frame.” (6)

Two artists — one a fine artist and painter, one a multimedia artist whose work straddles both video and the visual arts — have addressed how the frame can be used to heighten awareness of the worrying conditions that are affecting the survival of our oceans’ future, and in turn our own.


Find out more

Notes from Mary’s text:

  1. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces in Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press. 2015
  2. These Are The Last Great Paintings Ellsworth Kelly Made Before He Died: Terence Troullot, Artnet News, 4th May 2017. This essay includes the painting, White Diagonal Curve (2015).
  3. Troullot: Ibid
  4. Todd, M Jeffrey: Eisenstein’s Film Theory on Montage and Architecture. A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of Division of Graduate Studies. Georgia Institute of Technology. 1989
  5. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces. In Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press.  2015
  6. Elwes: Ibid

You can find more of Mary’s work at her site. Julien Masson’s video as part of this collaborative project appears in the earlier post The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement  and you can find more of his work at his site.

In the Path of Its Beam

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.