Multidisciplinary artist Anthony Bennett shares the inspiration behind sculptures on the crucial role of the usually disregarded fungus in returning life to soils following mass extinction events — and what this offers us in imagining possible human extinction.
Dead Kids Fingers is a project I started some years ago now. I’ve always been a political animal. Over the years I’ve been involved in many kinds of political causes. Environmentalism, for the last ten years or so, has reinvigorated my passion for social justice.
Through the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, which I co-conceived with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, I met a number of scientists at the University and through conversations with them, I started to learn about the tasks and the enormous issues which their research is focused upon, facing society now, and in the near future. Research concerning climate change, food security, all sorts of things, including depletion of global resources.
The fungus factor in our soils
I was particularly inspired by soil scientist/mycologist Professor Duncan Cameron. Our conversations have resulted in a number of artwork projects, and continue to do so. For one such project, I considered the worst-case scenario facing the human race; that if it doesn’t adapt and change its ways, then it could become extinct. The idea of human extinction really knocked me sideways. I suppose it fascinated me.
I learned that following the three last great Mass Extinctions on the planet, the organism that took a lead in restoring life on the planet was fungus. I learned that it originally created the soil itself, and that it has built the soil ever since by means of its mycelium rotting matter and repurposing it as soil. That we owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The concept of ‘The Wood Wide Web’, coined by Duncan’s teacher and colleague Professor Sir David Read, the revelation of the hidden but active connectivity of mycelium, reinvigorated my lifelong yearning for active and purposeful collaboration, creative and open, with no proclivity to compromise or to dumbing down.
Through my research I came across the fungus Dead Man’s Fingers. Considering a post-extinction planet, and the fact that fungus is the thing which will restore some sort of life-forms, I employed the idea to use the device of a child’s finger, emerging from the earth, as a metaphor for post extinction life re-emerging, human or otherwise.
Dead Kids Fingers
I started creating sculptures at my studio, and then created installations in woodland areas and forests nearby. I took photographs which I shared online, and exhibited some of them in group art shows, with the statement:
“Dead kids fingers address the fact that: With or without humans, fungus will revitalize the earth, as it has done following previous global extinctions. And that all life on earth is connected. In the hope that future generations will embrace the mycelial world, learn from it, and engage with it in mutualistic symbiosis.”
Maybe the lessons learned could then be put to use to actually fend off the next extinction? A purpose to life in the Anthropocene.
NB: click on image to enter slideshow and then view full size.
Check out Anthony’s Instagram feed @absculpts for up to date and ongoing artworks. Anthony contributed Ace of Wands to Week 3 of our Quarantine Connection series in 2020.
You can explore the most recent Festival of the Mind schedule, for 2020, which includes a series of podcasts on various climate change, extinction and health topics — among them, Anthony’s Bittersweet Air exhibition and podcast on his work on soil in collaboration with Professor Tim Daniell.
You can find out about Professor Duncan Cameron’s work on resource fluxes and chemical signals in plant-microbe symbioses in agricultural and natural systems at his website.
This piece by Taylor Kubota of Stanford University (15/5/19) for Science X describes how scientists built on the pioneering work of Professor Sir David Read on fungal symbiosis to map the global Wood Wide Web.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?
1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.
“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”
It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,” a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”
An Ice Age in miniature
In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”
The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”
‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’
Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.
Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.
“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”
Find out more
The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.
John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).
You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.
Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.
Artist and writer Selva Ozelli marks Clean Air Day with a roundup of international art shows she has curated and participated in during this year of pandemic, spurred on by urgent connections between our environmental and health crises.
2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes + 2 mins video
It has been an unprecedented year, with 13% more large, uncontrolled wildfires around the world compared to last year — spelling dire consequences for carbon dioxide levels, health and biodiversity, as well as the economy. And human actions in burning down ‘Magical Forests’ — as depicted by my childhood friend artist Mehmet Kuran — are mostly to blame, according to a newly released report, Fires, forests and the future.
The year began with Australia’s record-shattering bushfires, burning down a forest the size of England. According to The Guardian, “On New Year’s Day in Canberra the air quality reading was the worst on the planet: 26 times levels considered hazardous to human health.”
In April, nearly 20% of the forested area of northern Thailand burned, and wildfires overtook Indonesia and Ukraine’s Chernobyl region, causing dangerous levels of air pollution. By June wildfires lit up the Arctic Circle, with Siberia registering the most extreme recorded temperatures, resulting in the severest Arctic melting. By August a government researcher told Reuters that Brazil’s Amazon wildfires were the worst in the past ten years. The West Coast of the U.S. slipped into an epic wildfire season, which is still ongoing. These wildfires raging across the world smashed last year’s records for CO2 emissions, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, and aggravated respiratory ailments amid the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic — the most devastating plague to ravage humankind this century.
This unparalleled year brought out the artist and curator in me for the first time in my life. The unprecedented global Covid-19 lockdown allowed me to allocate my time to expressing my thoughts and feelings about climate change and Covid-19 via paintings, in addition to my series of articles on digital technology adoption, solar energy and tax policies in jurisdictions with the greatest carbon emissions.
International art for global challenges
I took my first step as a curator with an art brochure for fellow ClimateCultures artist Rana Balkis’s Infinite Possibilities series. We are now entering what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but still fuelled by coal and fossil fuels — with adverse environmental effects. In this era, not only are we able to transmit our ideas and our art digitally around the world, but also the pollution from energising these digital technologies — as well as diseases affected by pollution. This triggered an urge in Rana to find a new way, through her art, to raise awareness of climate change and environmental consciousness. In Infinite Possibilities — with two paintings selected in the United Nations’ Covid-19 Artwork open brief — working in the style of collage, she intends her oil paintings to expand our curiosity and imagination so we better connect, understand and adapt to our technologically changing world by expanding our perception in the context of our stagnant values, behaviour and norms.
Since our atelier, led by Teymur Rzayev, is a space for many talented climate change artists and interesting artwork, next I curated Atelier Teymur Rzayev’s First Digital Climate Change Art Show, with five paintings that were acknowledged in six international art contests. As I reported for the ClimateCultures Quarantine Connection series, I initially planned our group show to take place at the Balat Culture Center in Istanbul. However, due to Covid-19 social distancing rules, it was cancelled at the last moment. Therefore, I had to quickly switch to launching a digital art show with the assistance of Cem Ustuner, the owner of Pinelo Art Gallery, so it could reach global viewers. Our group show was registered as UN Environment, Ocean and Desertification Days digital events and it received a favourable art review; it got ample international press and was published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change, Hong Kong.
The good reception of this show encouraged me to continue curating ten, and participating in seven, climate change and Covid-19 themed art shows: four group, and three solo. These were published by the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change Hong Kong, Climate Museum UK and over 160 museums, culture ministries and NGOs in over 40 countries around the world. I am pleased to share these art shows here today, to commemorate UK’s largest air pollution campaign: National Clean Air Day, which was launched in 2017. While this is normally celebrated on the third Thursday in June, due to Covid-19 this year Clean Air Day is celebrated digitally on 8th October in the UK.
Encouraged by the increasing interest of the international community in clean air, and emphasising the need to make further efforts to improve air quality, including reducing air pollution to protect human health, the UN General Assembly decided to designate 7th September as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, which was celebrated digitally for the first time this year around the globe with the highest level of participation from the UN — and Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, where Professor Mehmet Emin Birpınar, Deputy Minister, explained that “the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of clean air all over the world.”
But the largest ever global Climate Ambition Alliance — launched in 2019 and representing 452 cities (including London and New York City), 22 regions in 120 countries, 1,101 businesses, 45 of the biggest investors, and 549 universities — is the ‘Race To Zero’ campaign. It rallies leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery ahead of COP26, where governments must strengthen their contributions to the Paris Agreement, achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.
As part of the Race to Zero campaign, run in coordination with the UN and the City of New York, ex-Mayor of NYC Mike Bloomberg kicked off Climate Week in NYC on 21st September by announcing that Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sierra Club successfully retired 60% of U.S. coal-fired power plants — 318 out of 530 plants — via the Beyond Coal campaign. A day later, injecting new momentum into global climate action, President Xi told the UN General Assembly that China, the world’s biggest polluter of greenhouse gases, pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060 — only a week after the EU committed to increasing its emission-reduction target from 40 to 55 percent by 2030. On 27th September, the last day of Climate Week in NYC, the world’s first shipment of blue ammonia was transported from Saudi Arabia, which has the World’s second-largest oil reserves, to Japan — the World’s sixth largest CO2 emitter — where it will be used in power stations to produce electricity without carbon emissions.
With world leaders taking important steps towards decarbonisation, I curated a group show Clean Air for Blue Skies and my solo digital art show Breathe Life with the theme of air pollution. These two art shows contain six paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests of forest fires, lonely trees, gardens and portraits of artists who were economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic with their shows being cancelled.
My solo art show Breathe Life includes portraits of composer and singer Niall Horan (Heartbreak Weather – Human’s Inertia in the Face of Wildfires) and ClimateCultures artist Renan Kaleli (Pollution), who is working towards preparing an art show Climate Change to Corona, with five paintings selected in the UN’s Covid-19 Artwork open brief. These artists turned to launching digital concerts and digital art shows this year, so I have also included a portrait of Professor Erdal Arikan (Pollution 2), the creator of 5G technology.
Urbanisation & Biodiversity
Serife Akkan explored the theme of urbanization and its impact on the environment and CO2 levels in her solo art show One Door One Hundred Trees. Serife wanted to bring attention to and set alarm bells about the destruction humans are making of their environment — particularly since she witnessed firsthand the rapid urbanisation in Istanbul during her lifetime and its impact on air quality.
One of the concerns associated with predictions of CO2-induced global warming is the claim that the number of birds and their habitat areas will decline. Conserving and restoring the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support natural cycles are essential for the survival and well-being of migratory birds. Artist Fatma Kadir explored the theme of biodiversity in her two solo art shows Bird Watching 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in three international art contests to commemorate biodiversity in birds that are important plant pollinators and seed dispersers.
This July, less sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean than in any other July since scientists began keeping track of it with satellites in 1979. This marks another step toward the devastating and planet-reshaping inevitability of an ice-free summer for the Arctic Ocean. Artist Semine Hazar explored the theme of Arctic melting in her solo art show Sea Watcher. The inspiration was her trip to the Antarctic in 2017 where she witnessed the ice melting and, with a great sound, crashing into the sea. This brought tears to her eyes. Semine’s late husband was a captain. Captains determine their sea routes based on the silent light signals of lighthouses. With her sea and lighthouse themed paintings, Semine wants to draw attention to the importance of oceans to our world and our ecology as the largest carbon sink, and the need for us to guard them. She wants the silent signals from the lighthouses to be visible to all of us, not only captains of our world.
The current high levels of air pollution around the world have contributed to increased rates of chronic respiratory disease and impaired lung function in people of all ages, making air pollution a major and increasing threat to public health according to a study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science. Many of the diseases that are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution are the same diseases that increase the risk of severe illness and death in patients with Covid-19.
In my two solo art shows Art in the Time of Corona 1 & 2, with sixteen paintings that were acknowledged in five international art contests, I explored whether climate change caused by CO2 might be one reason for such a terrible global Covid-19 pandemic which spread around the world like a tsunami alongside heightened CO2, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs to the point where we become highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The unprecedented pandemic has put an enormous burden on health systems and professionals worldwide. So far, more than 27.9 million people around the world have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and more than 1,000,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some 18.8 million people have recovered. The pandemic unveiled the challenges and the risks health workers face globally including healthcare-associated infections, violence, stigma, psychological and emotional disturbances, illness and even death. These frontline workers are physically exhausted and emotionally strained from the harrowing experience of serving on the Covid response with respiratory as well as neurological manifestations.
To commemorate their sacrifice I have included portraits of Covid-19 frontline professionals, including Dr Esma Akin, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at George Washington Hospital in Washington DC, USA; Dr Kalbiye Yalaz — the teacher of Dr Akin — who established the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital; Lale Baymur Vanli, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist who is the first psychologist to be hired into the first pediatric neurology department in Hacettepe Hospital and daughter of late Professor Feriha Baymur, who established the first Psychology department at Hacettepe Hospital and University.
Finally, climate change artists Fatma Kadir from her Bird Watching series, Resul Rzayev from his Mountain Air series, and I from my Art in the Time of Corona series donated artwork to the Portakal Cicegi Project, which will be on sale until 15th October 2020 to raise funds for the orphans of Covid-19 frontline health care professionals.
Artist Jo Dacombe shares an exercise she developed for students to respond creatively to the sensory nature of woods, and which she’s adapted for online engagement with nature during Covid19 lockdown as part of her Imagining Woodlands project.
1,760 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes + exercise
Each year, in May, I run a workshop for literature students at the University of York, as part of the Imagining Woodlands module, set up as a result of a collaboration between Dr Freya Sierhuis (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature) and me. My workshop would take place in a nearby woodland, at St Nick’s Nature Reserve, where we would tune in on the sensory nature of the woods and how we could respond creatively to this. This year, of course, the module fell under lockdown, and it was impossible to bring the students together, let alone take them for a walk in the woods.
My task, then, was to try to create something of the experience for students who were living far apart, many in other countries, and who were supposed to create something by working in groups, experiencing a woodland environment and a connection with nature. Quite a challenge.
Luckily, I had been working towards creating art installations related to woodland environments, so I already had quite a lot of material that I could use, including imagery made in various ways, video footage and audio recordings from woodland environments. I decided to create a series of online lectures, each followed by a creative task that would respond to some of my material which I could share online with the students.
Entering nature one sense at a time
I am based in Leicester, which, at the time of writing, is still under an extended lockdown. I am sitting in my garden writing this, enjoying the peace of fewer cars and I can hear a bird chirping to the north. The sun warms my skin and a gentle breeze is moving a strand of hair across my cheek. I am distinctly aware of the importance of the senses when outdoors. I am also keenly aware of how much time we are spending indoors and, for us in Leicester, this continues longer than most. With the students, I knew that many of them would not be lucky enough to have a garden.
One of my lectures starts by considering Richard Long’s early work entitled A Line Made by Walking. A beautifully simple gesture he made in 1967, A Line Made by Walking is simply that — the desire line created by the act of walking up and down a meadow in Wiltshire in a straight line, the simple interaction between a human presence and the landscape. I talked with the students of the importance of recognising the mutual impacts of humans in an environment, how it affects us but also how we affect it. I was trying to use Long’s work to break us free from the idea of the natural environment as a place to visit, a pristine place kept for our entertainment and recreation, but rather as a place that we become a part of when we enter and which we respond to and it responds to us.
If you have ever sat in a woodland environment for a long period of time, on your own, without moving, eventually you become part of that environment. The fauna around you will, eventually, begin to resume the activity that it was taking part in before your arrival. I think we forget that what we see is not what is really there, because as soon as a human presence enters the woods, the woods respond and the fauna, and indeed the flora, react to our presence. Animals hide and birds begin their alarm calls. But, if you sit still for long enough, they get used to you and resume their everyday activity. I have often experienced this, as I will sit for long periods in one place in a woodland when I am trying to audio record.
A Line Made by Walking makes us aware of this. I prefer Richard Long’s earlier works, because they are light touch. He only uses what he finds in a landscape, and creates a statement using his own movements or actions, using no more than his own presence and bodily ability; there are no machinery or tools involved, just moving and rearranging. The works are temporary and, once the wind blows, begin to disappear.
We also looked at some of Long’s text pieces, such as One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984. Many of Long’s walks he describes by making lists of words, and arranging those words into shapes or writing them across a map. This method works well to really focus on the things around us that we notice when we take a walk; Long notes the sounds, effects of the wind, smells, textures and weather from his walks.
My group walks are like this, too. Often, I try to get us to focus on one sense at a time; I ask people to walk in silence, show them how to think through their feet or we sit blindfolded in the woods. For my online workshops, then, I tried to create a way of experiencing something of these senses one by one.
The following are instructions for one of the tasks that I set the students, to create a poetry work in response to my video. The task followed the talk on Long and his work One Hour, and we discussed how poetry could be presented visually on a page; how a circle of words has no beginning or end, and how other shapes across a page can change the order in which you read words, and how we could use words visually. Moving and rearranging. The students produced some beautiful works as a result of this workshop, and I reproduce the activity instructions here for you to try yourself. The first part is an individual activity and the second is intended for work in a group; if you can, do share this post with others you can meet up with (at a safe social distance) or work with remotely.
And if you are still unable to go out, like me, then I hope it brings you a little connection to a woodland environment.
Imagining woodlands — an exercise
Individually: Watch the video below, entitled Woodland Canopy, clicking on Full-Screen mode. This is a video taken by looking up at the tree canopy in a wood. It lasts about 5 minutes. There is no sound on this video.
Try to watch the video without introducing your own music or sounds. The idea is that we are isolating one of our senses, just using our eyes, and not influenced by other senses. Try to watch it in a quiet space or use sound-blocking headphones.
Don’t expect the camera to move or much to happen. You need to really watch and focus for five minutes. In fact, quite a lot happens, but it is subtle. Try to tune in and notice every nuance.
As you watch, make a list of words, a little like Richard Long might as he walks. Just write whatever comes into your head. The words might be about what you see, feel or think; they might have imagined connections or spark memories.
You can watch the video more than once, if you like.
In your group: Now arrange to work with your group, virtually. Choose the favourite words or phrases that you wrote from the video. Share them with your group. You could do this with a Google Doc, on Zoom, or on a VLE Whiteboard.
In your group, try to weave all your words together to form one poem or piece of prose. Give it a title.
Think about how you will present this work. How will it look on the page? Or will you record it as an audio reading?
Why not share your poem or prose response to Jo's Imagining Woodlands exercise -- whether working alone or as a group -- in a Comment on this blog? And do share your reflections on this activity or a creative exercise of your that you've found useful during Covid19 lockdown.
Find out more
Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. Jo mentioned that this university activity usually takes place at St Nick’s Nature Reserve in York. St Nicks Centre for Nature and Green Living is a local charity created in the 1990s to transform a former landfill site into a thriving Local Nature Reserve. “The name of the site and the secular charity comes from the middle ages when the area was owned and managed by St Nicholas hospital and church.”
You might enjoy this video from Project Wild Thing, on the science of why engaging with nature is part of being human, and the benefits for our wellbeing. It’s part of the full film, which you can see at the Project Wild Thing website. And The Susurrations of Trees is a recent BBC Radio 4 programme that features recordings of the sounds of leaves on different trees, the words we use to describe these and the poetic and artistic responses to this experience of nature. “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall…” (Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree).
Jo Dacombe contributed Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands — a piece that originally appeared on her blog in 2015 — for Day 29 of our Quarantine Connection series. Her book, Imagining Woodlands, will be available later this summer. You can keep up to date with that by following her blog — where you can also discover the first issue of Imminent, a new zine Jo has launched with contributions from fellow writers and artists.
Artist Jo Dacombe explores the othering of woodlands through maps and language as bordering us off from the natural world, and looks to ways to reconnect.
2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has written that Othering is a defining feature of Western culture:
“Some authors (notably Said, 1985, 1994) have argued that Western identity and culture are fundamentally forged by an othering logic, one that dehumanizes or devalues other people, such as primitives, uncivilized, orientals, blacks, non-believers, women and so forth. An essential feature of othering is denying the Other his/her own voice, denying him/her the opportunity to speak for him/herself and instead attributing qualities, opinions and views that refer to one’s own identity and culture.”
Othering occurs to non-human subjects too. It also occurs in relation to our environments. This Othering of Nature has been discussed by thinkers such as Latour and Levi-Strauss; the Enlightenment enabled this dichotomy in order for humans to exploit nature to their own ends.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Emphasising intellectual and scholarly methods and using reason for gaining knowledge, the ideas of the Enlightenment worked against religious, spiritual or traditions of knowledge and thus elevated the European intellect to the highest status. One could argue that this set up the eventual split between the human world of reason and intellect, and Other worlds of spirituality or non-humans. Thinkers of the Enlightenment saw nature as a source to study and the wild as something to be controlled, to be subjugated under the will of humans, and thus the natural world could be exploited by human domination to suit their needs.
Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing
Othering creates borders. We try to describe our environments using maps. We draw geography and delineate between this area and that. In essence, borders are made-up, imagined edges. They may make our map drawing a little easier and our politics more manageable, but they are still not real. Birds and animals have a sense of territory, sometimes, though perhaps not all of them. But certainly plants don’t stick to their own area in quite the same way; perhaps they have a more accidental way of landing and then surviving where the conditions are right. Animals, plants and birds all attempt to find a space in which the area and resources are what they need to survive. Humans carve out their territories for similar reasons, but there seems to be a more calculated motive, which can become about expansion for the sake of it, going too far with ideas of world domination. There seems more ego in it.
I love maps. They can be beautiful works of art and fascinating time capsules of a place. However they are also powerful, and as with all power theirs can be used or abused. A map presents a place from the perspective of the mapmaker. Every mapmaker has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and this will depend on what the mapmaker thinks is important, corresponding to his or her own personal bias. Maps are all about drawing borders, identifying areas of particular characteristics, placing points of interest within contexts; sometimes imposing those contexts. Thus, maps can be tools of Othering. By creating maps of particular areas, we also create Other areas.
Oliver Rackham writes of the changing maps of woodlands over the centuries. Ancient woods marked on maps appear now much as they were in earlier maps of 1580; zigzag outlines, boundaries that go around individual large trees, maps drawn to describe the natural boundaries set out on the ground, not from a draughtman’s office. Straight lines on maps do not appear until 1700, when woods started to be grubbed out or enlarged. These altered boundaries appear regularly curved or straight.
“In Planned Countryside the irregular shapes of ancient woods sit awkwardly among the straight hedges laid out around them by Enclosure Act commissioners. In Ancient Countryside, the ghost of a grubbed-out wood may haunt the map as the irregularly-shaped perimeter of a ‘Wood farm’ whose internal hedges are anomalously straight.”
These imposed boundaries were due to Enclosures of land, and marking out forest areas as royal preserves. Gamekeeping in Britain specifically contributed to separating people from woodlands, unlike in France, Germany and Switzerland where “ancient woods are everyone’s heritage; in Britain alone have we lost that birthright, and with it our knowledge and love of the woods.”
Putting Nature in its place
And yet we do have a love for the woods, but I would argue that this is a different sort of love from the one that Rackham describes. For many of us, woodlands are like a brief flirtation rather than a commitment like marriage. We go to the woods to escape. We see them as places that are separate from our everyday lives, and that is why we love them. They are places for ‘nature’ and reserves for wildlife. We are happy with wildlife when it is in ‘its place’, in other words, not in our place.
Woodlands are often ‘other’ to the modern human world. They are a place of nature, a retreat, something to be preserved in a ‘natural’ and untouched state, not to be interfered with by human activity. They are to be kept for us to enjoy when we visit, but not to become part of our modern way of life. The two things are separate.
On the one hand this could be positive; the Othering of the natural environment means we have an urge to conserve it, to admire it, not to interfere with it too much, surely this is a good thing. However my view is that the Othering of nature means that we become more and more disconnected from our natural environments and from woodlands. They become a desirable thing for our leisure time, but there is a danger then that perhaps they are not a necessity when resources are scarce. Woodlands are valued and magical, they are precious to us in a way, like a beautiful object kept in a glass case. In my book Imagining Woodlands I have written about the Enchantment of woodlands and the notion that they are faeryworlds, or otherworlds. But these faery stories and folk tales add to the Othering of woodlands as distinct from the human world.
This has not always been the case. Once the woodlands in Britain were an important part of everyday human lives. People worked in and with forests. Woodlands were places of industry as much as leisure, where wood was gathered for a variety of uses, livestock were grazed there, and charcoal was produced as fuel. It is my belief that when woodlands were connected to us in this way, as something we lived on, relied on and thus valued, that the woodlands were more likely to be conserved by us as something essential. It was not Other. It was a part of us, and we were a part of the woods.
Our language contributes to this act of Othering. Our language both reflects and shapes the way we perceive things. It is almost impossible to speak about the natural world without Othering it – there I go again! Just by uttering those words, ‘the natural world’, I have made it separate from the alternative, the ‘human world’.Yet there are cultures that do not have a word for nature because they do not see it as a separate entity, such as small scale communities in the Amazon and the Malaysian rainforests.
Currently there is a national drive to plant more trees, to mitigate the effect of imminent climate breakdown. To re-wild, and re-forest. But these things will not overcome the Othering of the woodlands. Perhaps planting new street-trees would be more effective; integrating swathes of trees into our everyday lives and right up to our front doors.
I grew up on a street called The Avenue. It was lined with large-leaved linden trees. Every day I would say hello to these trees, and watch as they sprouted new twigs at the base, bright red new sprouts that would bear pale yellow-green, large heart-shaped leaves. I would notice the colours changing with the seasons, fear the wasps that would gather in late summer to sip from the stickiness on the leaves, and worry about the black spots that sometimes appeared. I knew those trees well, and they were a part of my daily life. Now I’m older, I still feel a particular affinity with linden trees and I always recognise them and feel that strong connection. Other trees I have got to know since, but it has often been a more forced relationship, as I have felt I ought to know more species’ names and learn about them. But linden trees I grew up with, and I still miss them now that I live on a road without trees.
Perhaps a change in our language could help too. There is a fascinating section in Rackham’s book about the many Anglo-Saxon words for woodlands, many for which their specific meanings have been lost. These words demonstrate the greater connection they had with woodlands, and how they reflected the way they thought of woodlands in different contexts. For example, feld is an open space in sight of woodlands, with which to contrast it. A ley or a hurst appear to mean inhabited space surrounded by woodland. These words show how woodlands were a part of a wider, connected landscape, rather than a separated area on its own. Perhaps our language needs to expand to reflect this way of thinking again; to develop a lexicon to describe landscape relationships rather than separate features.
Old English consisted of a vocabulary of short words, and so used composite words to expand the vocabulary, which we know from the long saga poems such as Beowulf. For example, a whale is referred to as an ‘ocean-rider’, using two words combined to be descriptive of the animal. Often this was a way of creating the correct alliteration that was required by the poem, but it also produced beautifully descriptive new words.
I wonder if this is a way we could create new words to better describe our landscapes? To start to generate those connections between objects and surroundings, to embed things fully into the landscape and the way we speak of it? ‘Street-tree’ is one example, placing the tree in a particular type of location. How could we use words to better describe the different types of woodland? ‘Slope-spruce-holt’ for trees on a mountain side? (Holt being the Old English word for a wood of predominantly one species.) ‘Poplar-shimmer-shaw’ for the effect of a line of white poplar trees from a distance when the wind turns their leaves over to show the pale side? (Shaw meaning a small wood on a boundary.)
How would this way of using language change our relationship with the natural world around us? Would naming the specificity of woodlands make them more personal, more valuable, and better connect us to them?
Find out more
Jo Dacombe is currently creating a book of words and images called Imagining Woodlands, which will be available in 2020. You can read Jo’s earlier ClimateCultures post,Bone Landscapes, describing her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.
And you can exploreThe Lost Words: A Spell Bookby Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017), published by Penguin. The book “seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us” and has generated a set of songs, available from the same site.