Living (and Composing) in the Anthropocene

Composer Stanley Grill shares his Music for the Earth project and how his feelings about climate change have a way of turning into music evoking connections with the natural world and our obligation to be caretakers, not destroyers.


1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes 


By nature, I’m a loner and a contemplative – not an activist. By practice, I’m a composer – and music has, since childhood, been a source of solace and a world more real to me than the world of people and all of their strange beliefs that strike me, by and large, as entirely unhinged from reality. I am not a religious person, but inclined to believe that most of the stories people tell themselves to explain the world are fantastical illusions.

The view of mankind as a unique species somehow granted dominion over the Earth, a view held by many of the world’s dominant religions, seems evidently false – an example of humanity’s limitless hubris and nothing more. It seems to me that for the entirety of our existence on Earth, we have told ourselves such stories in order to silence the sheer terror that comes with an awareness of our insignificance. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke said it best and most poignantly when he wrote, in the opening lines of the first of his Duino Elegies, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’ Orders? And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure, and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every Angel is terrifying.”

Music for the Anthropocene
Angel, Cemetery Marseille, Provence, France
(www.flickr.com/photos/x1klima/28040991569 CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dating back to the very beginnings of human civilizations, our primary driver seems to have been the desire to subdue the terrors of that great Angel, the Earth, with its (incomprehensible in their vastness) forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, and wild beasts. As our skills with technology grew, we walled ourselves in, we paved over the ground, we burned or hacked away at forest and jungle, we wantonly destroyed creatures we feared, and worst of all, abandoned our elemental connection to the Earth and its bounties, perceiving ourselves as somehow separate and apart from (and superior to) the myriad living creatures with whom we share the planet.

Our exact trajectory along that path is largely unrecorded and lost. What role did we play in the destruction of many long-extinct species as our species spread across the globe? How many once flourishing habitats did we transform into barren desert? Wreaking environmental havoc is not something new for us – it is a very ancient habit. Our relatively recent recognition of our role in climate change – and the fact that we’ve coined a new name for it – doesn’t change our past. We’ve always done this, even if the full extent of our impact on the planet is far from understood, remaining, perhaps forever, unknowably lost to time. The Anthropocene started a very long time ago.

The connectedness of everything

While our need to tinker with the world without comprehending the consequences and ripple effects of our actions has been in our DNA from the start, the speed of those ripples has grown exponentially in the past century, exacerbated by vast increases in our numbers and our technological capabilities. It was only recently that I learned about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of all too many examples of overly confident people setting out, perhaps with good intent, to change one thing, without having a clue as to the consequences. The connectedness of everything was understood, to some extent, by at least a minority of people since the beginning of time, but lost time and again. And occasionally rediscovered.

While his books may now collect dust in libraries, Alexander von Humboldt discovered it for himself in the late 18th century, writing that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” becoming perhaps the first explorer with a modern scientific outlook to acknowledge and document human-induced climate change. Those who tinkered with the Aral Sea would, one wants to hope, have thought better of their plans if they had read some of Humboldt’s books describing the impacts of deforestation he witnessed during his journey through South America. But, perhaps not, especially if profit is the driving motivation.

As I write this, struggling to frame out my thoughts, trying to piece together into a coherent whole the bits and pieces I’ve picked up without any organized study over the years, I always wind up face to face with the reality that, as bleak as our prospects may look from today’s vantage point, I am entirely powerless to do anything about it. For sure, all of this was beyond my ken as I was growing up. The inventions of our age all seemed so exciting and the future so filled with promise. Looking back, the repercussions of our actions seem evident, but then, we are all far more ignorant and stupid than we ever think we are. But, one fact stands out – the planet and the life on it is all one interconnected web and we tug and pull or tear any strand of it at our peril.

“Endangered World: Life Wall” by Xavier Cortada (CC BY 2.0)

Music for the Earth

Which brings me around to where I started. Whatever my feelings and thoughts are about this subject don’t really matter much. I can do little or nothing about it. But I am a composer – and while notes and ideas have little intrinsic connection, my feelings about climate change and the bleak future we’re careening towards at an ever more rapid pace do have a way of turning into music. We humans have always told ourselves stories to explain what we don’t understand or can’t control – and, guilty as charged, I tell myself stories for the same reasons.

I started a Music for the Earth series a few years ago, with the idea that perhaps, through music, I could have some small influence on any who heard it. Putting small black dots on paper that transform into vibrations in the air might serve to evoke in others a feeling of connection with the natural world and of our obligation to be caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the life that everywhere surrounds us. A story I tell myself…

Over the past several years, the series has grown – and more recently, I’ve started to get the music recorded. And I’ve created videos, either on my own or in collaboration with others, with music from Music for the Earth. These include Canciones de la Tierra, settings for mezzo soprano and viola of seven bucolic poems by Federico Garcia Lorca about the Andalusian landscapes that so inspired him. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Lorca’s poetry in connection with my thoughts about climate change and, more particularly, with my conviction that a corollary to our disconnectedness from the natural world is the ease with which we accept environmental catastrophe and human-caused mass extinctions without feeling a deep sense of shame and loss.

Lorca’s poetic and passionate essay The Theory and Play of Duende often comes to my mind when composing music. “The duende … Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”

We cannot really feel unless we are elementally connected to the life of the Earth. And, the corollary to this is that we will be unable to change our relationship with the Earth and all of the life on it unless we understand and feel duende. For Lorca, the spirit of duende was to be found in the Andalusian countryside, and so I turned to his poems of Andalusia for Canciones de la Tierra.

“Remember, you are this universe…”

Remember is a video collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mariko Endo (previously showcased on ClimateCultures) with music for viola and piano, intermezzi with themes inspired by poems of the Earth. The music in this video comes from the fifth and final intermezzo in my composition Remember – which is based on a song from my The Whirr of Wings composition – to a poem of the same title by poet laureate Joy Harjo: “Remember, you are this universe and this universe is you.”

Sea & Sky, for two violas, is a collaboration with violist Brett Deubner, the music inspired by and composed on walks along Cape Cod bay.

And, for the future, time and resource availability permitting, will be recordings of Gaia’s Lament for violin & orchestra, Gaia’s Song for piano and orchestra, Ode to Thea and Sulla Natura for string quartet, The Whirr of Wings for chorus, flute, viola and cello, and A Single Thorn for soprano, French horns and string orchestra, setting poems by Canadian poet Meg Freer.

Best wishes for a greener planet. 

And for any reading this, musicians or not, if curious about the Music for the Earth project, do browse through my website and, even better, if any others active in ClimateCultures want to collaborate on a project, please reach out. We can tell that story together.


Find out more

You can explore more of Stanley’s Music for the Earth and other projects at his site and his YouTube channel, and two of his works have featured in the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase: Remember, mentioned above, and Ahimsa.

You can find out more about Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in this piece by Maria Popova at The Marginalian, Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections – a review of the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

And you can read about the disappearance of the Aral Sea in this 2021 piece on The Meaning of Water site, The Aral Sea — More Than a Lake Is Disappearing…

To explore the poems that Stanley has quoted from and which have inspired his work, visit:

The image “Endangered World: Life Wall” shows the work created by artist Xavier Cortada. “Cortada created “Endangered World: Life Wall” using 360 red bricks along with stones deposited in the Netherlands by glacial forces during the last ice age. The work is a 2.1m x 8.5m wall created near the nation’s largest neolithic gravesite at the Hunebed Center in Borger. The 360 bricks represent 360 animals struggling for survival across 360 degrees. On each brick, Cortada painted the longitude where each animal lives. When a species dies out, the number is painted black. The animals are part of an interconnected web that includes humans. How many bricks can be removed before the wall of life comes tumbling down?” You can explore Cortada’s work at cortada.com.

Stanley Grill

Stanley Grill

A composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.
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Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan reviews a pair of books – non-fiction, fiction – that embrace the unknown, helping us navigate our collective uncertainty and explore what it means to be human in a time of Anthropocene unravelling.


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


And so, on a most inauspicious date — 24th June 2022 — the day when millions of women lost control of their own bodies, I sit down to write my first book review ever. I stare blankly at the screen; come back tomorrow, it tells me. But the numbness would continue for several more days, as the US “supreme” court went on a week-long rampage, bludgeoning Indigenous sovereignty and our fundamental rights to a livable planet.

I am thinking of Ursula Le Guin. Four years before her death in 2018, she said “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society… We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2021
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

This is a review of two very different books by two very different writers, both of whom are currently co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte Du Cann has pulled together some of her finest essays into one volume; Nick Hunt presents his début collection of short fiction. A daunting challenge for my first attempt at writing a book review. But nothing as daunting as learning how to embrace the humility of the unknown, which for me is the luminous thread that connects these two important works.

Both writers explore the existential question of what it means to be human in a time of unravelling. Both writers propose transformative journeys in time and space that, if we remain open, have the potential to radically shift our perception of this living, breathing planet and — most essentially — our shared space within it.

Finding transformation in the underworld

“I am not sure I can take you there with words,” writes Du Cann towards the end of her book. “I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself.”

In After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, Du Cann peels back the layers – in characteristically non-chronological order — of her decades-long descent to re-entangle herself with a sentient Earth. She reveals the doubts, the joys, the humility, the rapture, the patience, and the dogged discipline required to un-civilize oneself in our fossil-fueled, frequent-flyer, fast-fashion societies. It is “a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within.”

‘After Ithaca’ – cover art: ‘On the Edge of This Immensity’, Meryl McMaster © 2022 merylmcmaster.com/

The faint of heart need not apply. “The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent… Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear.”

Boom! This is Du Cann at her very best, a moment of dazzling clarity: she hands us the mirror, asking the hard questions, shaking us out of our collective sleepwalk. To guide those of us who have not yet begun the “hard, hard task” of relinquishing the “self-obsessed material life we grasp and cling to,” Du Cann shares examples from her own non-linear passage of transformation through the prism of Psyche’s four initiation tasks – assigned by the goddess Venus, the jealous mother of Psyche’s divine lover, Eros. To earn back the love of the “winged boy she has lost”, the mortal Psyche must undergo radical change by embarking upon a perilous journey to the Underworld, without a script or roadmap or even a guarantee that she will ever find her way back. But she does, in spades, thanks to the unexpected help she receives from — and this is key — the most unassuming of allies: an army of ants, some river reeds, an eagle. As Du Cann explains, pivotal transformation can only take place in the Underworld “because change needs to happen at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside.”

One of my many ‘Aha!’ moments reading Du Cann’s After Ithaca came from this passage: “Change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change [yourself] to make space for the world to enter.” She expounds:

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force… but we are still asleep, reacting, neglecting… we lament deforestation whilst sitting on teak chairs…

As a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all;

Nothing transforms if we are the same people inside… if we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history. If we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention…

We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Rebirth.

After Ithaca humbly suggests a path forward. This brutally honest book is all about transformation and resurrection: undergoing collective change; “reforging ourselves” in alchemical spaces of conversation and gathering; making ourselves more vulnerable by honouring the great mystery. It’s time to deconstruct the dominion stories we’ve inherited — and embraced — throughout the millennia about the self-anointed privileges of one species among many. The arrogance of naming itself ‘wise’! It’s time to question the bright shiny lie that sapiens alone can bend nature to its will without consequences.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2022
“Temperature anomaly: an historically hot month of May followed by an historically cold month of June caused havoc for farmers in this rural region of Quebec along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.”

We are standing at the threshold between what was and what’s next, between despair and hope. Deep in our bones, we acknowledge that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out: transform, or die. Our task: to develop a collective consciousness to enmesh ourselves, once again, with our more-than-human kin.

Facing the unravelling

Nick Hunt’s collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories, explores the same themes of time, despair and collective uncertainty as Du Cann’s After Ithaca. But while Du Cann employs a more-or-less traditional narrative arc as we follow her real-life transformational journey, Hunt creates disorienting storyscapes with nebulous beginnings and unfinished endings. We feel seasick, suspended in time somewhere between 16th century Mexico and a dystopic future that appears, disconcertingly, to have already arrived.

Loss Soup – cover art: ‘Herd (not seen)’, detail. Daro Montag © 2022

Each of the 14 stories in this slender volume explores what it means to bear witness to collapse. Hunt’s characters are fragile, vulnerable, unsure of which way to turn or whom to believe. There is very little dialogue between them, a reflection of social unravelling.

Loss Soup is not just about loss, but unimaginable loss: of memory, of words, of identity, of places saturated with meaning. Of species, both real and mythic. One nameless character chooses to lose himself in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting aimlessly in a plastic vortex: “He came here to go nowhere.” In the not-too-distant future, both he and his yacht will be subsumed by the great Pacific garbage patch, “a convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.” His well-stocked coffers of wine, crisps and Cadbury will not last forever.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Nick Hunt’s fiction brings us as close as we can possibly get — viscerally, phenomenologically — to grasping the ambiguity of this liminal moment, in ways that non-fiction never could. “I try to think of what I’ve forgotten, but there’s no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.”

Several of these stories left me feeling squeamish. I squirmed in my chair, looking around for an easy way out. But Hunt holds us skillfully in these uncomfortable landscapes, coaxing us to linger a bit longer with the ambivalence. Our instinct is to flee, to return to the soma of our Instagram-perfect world. But something deep inside has already shifted: we choose to stay, to face the unravelling. Such is the power of fiction, to reveal the cracks in the veneer, the hidden spaces with multiple layers of meaning. This is the well from which we must draw.

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

Loss Soup reminds us that there have always been and will always be periods of radical uncertainty and impermanence. “Time does not flow in a straight line but turns inside repeating wheels, so that everything that has happened is still happening. Nothing has ever stopped. It never will.” If sapiens are as wise as we think we are, we will turn to the past for clues about navigating crisis, dysfunction, collapse. When seen through the lens of liminality, these recurring cataclysmic periods can be interpreted, in retrospect, as transformative: everything that gets swept up in the chaos will be transported and changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The dawn of the Anthropocene is yet another liminal moment, a bridge between two possible worlds, two ways of being. Destination unknown. While the outcome indeed looks bleak, it has yet to be written. “We will be wanting the voices of writers,” prophesized Le Guin, “who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” The voices of writers Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann bring much-needed clarity and insight to this existential moment.

If sapiens manages to save itself – along with millions of other species with whom we share this blue planet – it will be because of a profound shift in collective consciousness, not scientific facts or statistics. We could start by shifting our thinking about the Anthropocene as an opportunity to expand our ideas of what is possible, to embody it as an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of fossilized ways of thinking.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series “Becoming River” © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

Throughout After Ithaca, Du Cann refers frequently to her favorite metaphor: the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges only after the caterpillar has dissolved. Life begins anew out of death and darkness, as it always has and always will. Navigating the apocalypse may feel like the end of the world. But the dark is where everything is born.


Find out more

After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022) are both published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru, and are available from the Dark Mountain shop.

The Dark Mountain Project is many things and has taken many forms, including the original manifesto written amidst the global financial catastrophe of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. “Faced with this unravelling, the manifesto calls us to question the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it: the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation. And it claims a particular role for storytellers and culturemakers in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable.”

Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt are co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. After working as a journalist, Charlotte spent a decade travelling, mostly in the Americas, before settling in Suffolk to write a series of books about mythos and reconnecting with the Earth, starting with 52 Flowers That Shook My WorldNick’s books include Walking the Woods and the Water, Where the Wild Winds Are, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, and Outlandish. You can see Charlotte and Nick discuss the role of writing in times of unravelling and loss in this May 2022 Earth Talk event (in it, Nick describes the process that artist Daro Montag used to make the sculptures shown in the cover of Loss Soup). You can read excerpts from Where the Wild Winds Are in a series of Nick’s posts here at ClimateCultures.

The three photographs of Joan’s we’ve used in this post are from her series ‘Becoming River’. Joan explains that “all images in this series were created ‘in-camera’ using ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), with minor adjustments to contrast and clarity in Lightroom. No images were manipulated in Photoshop.” Of the middle photograph, on temperature anomaly, Joan adds: “I use ICM to express my eco-anxiety about our collective indifference to the climate crisis.”

You can learn about Joan’s life and work in photography on the climate crisis and energy transition in The liminal space between what was and what’s next (January 2022), episode 96 in the Conscient podcast series from Claude Schryer. And she writes regular posts for the Artists & Climate Change blog.

Watch Ursula Le Guin’s short acceptance speech when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Read Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis on ecological loss from climate breakdown in The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’. In this wide-ranging article for The Guardian (14/1//20), she says: “As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in TS Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion.”

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A self-taught photographer who seeks moments of grace and beauty in order to inspire others to visualize - to imagine - what our post-carbon world will
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Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews fellow member Susan Holliday‘s creative guide, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart, and finds ‘wise friends on the path’ of seeing deeply into connections, and a fellow traveller in the landscape of human nature.


1,600 words: estimate reading time = approximately 6.5 minutes


“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
— Sioux medicine man Black Elk, quoted in Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

Lockdown, for me and many, once I’d got through the initial shock of the newness, became an opportunity to really look, listen. To see and to hear.

To hear the birds — in my case the red kites circling the Oxford streets where I spent a large chunk of lockdown time, and to see those birds close up for the first time. And the deer, emboldened by lack of traffic, explored the concrete and the human-inhabited world. It was a time to both see and hear inquisitively at first, and then more deeply, to enjoy the artfulness and insight, and to start to peer further into the nature of the physical, and the metaphysical.

A guide into the human heart

Of course, this is the first part of the process, to see and to hear, followed then by to feel, and to know. Finding guides, wise ones, therapists, gurus, seers — in Buddhism the term is sangha, ‘wise friends on the path’ — is crucial, otherwise we mainline on experience alone.

Showing the cover of Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart
Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart cover: ‘For the Love of Spring’, original artwork © Dee Nickerson

Therapist, photographer, and seer Susan Holliday has produced a clear, close, and wise guide to the process of deeply looking — a ‘when and how to, and what we might encounter’ book that should be alongside us as we navigate pandemics, liminal times, and all our explorations of this, the human journey. Natural insight is key to Holliday’s vision: it is what we all have, and have probably buried or veneered over with the hurly-burly of life. If we unpeel, and find ways back to it — through deep looking, creative expression, and seeing through the grief and the reasons we paper over our own cracks — this heartful insight enables a visionary life full of magic and wonder, connected to and part of the natural ecosystem of all life:

“Disconnected from the vital intelligence of our hearts we look to things, mountains of things, to replenish the void in our being. We plunder the natural world around us to fill the bottomless pit within. Our myopia, it seems, is costing us the earth.”

Holliday shares six client stories from her psychotherapy practice, which go deeply into how she can hold a client’s grief seemingly in her own soul:

“When the decisive moment came, I was able to ‘capture it immediately’ because my spirit was already full of him, full of his grief and pregnant with the shape of the beautiful carefree boy who once tumbled down the hills of his moorland home,” she writes of one client, named here as Jake. Of another, Cassy, Holliday says: “She has wandered into the heart of her own wilderness.”

Her professional beholding of clients, and leading them to a place of change, which she articulates so clearly and incisively, is matched throughout with her understanding of her own striving for seeing, and sensing the world through her own arts practice — through the lens. Although none of her images are found within the book, you can see her work shared on Twitter, and the book is full of references to the writers, artists, and activists who inform her journey.

The art of seeing deeply

Showing the coast and the North Sea, by James Murray-White
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

I was delighted when first opening the book to see so many quotes and nods to photographer Bill Brandt, whose black and white explorations of human forms on a beach, and wartime documentary stills, inspired me so much in my early studies in image-making, that has in turn informed the last 20 years as a filmmaker.

Holliday describes herself midway through Hidden Wonders as a “traveller in the landscape of human nature”, and this powerfully resonates with me. Equipped with an MSc in Human Ecology some years ago, I too set out to navigate that path through the hills of both articulated and mediated expression. Time and again, I need to return to that centred space of heartful hearing and insight from the natural worlds within — my own microfauna of emotional fungi and mycelial vessels of coursing blood.

A visual metaphor for the human heart
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

“At its best I believe that therapy is akin to painting, to playing an instrument, to speaking a poem or performing a play. Like those it has the potential to lift us, both seer and seen, towards a quality of vision which is equivalent to art, in that it opens us up to the richness, vitality and truth of our existence. So to explore the nature of insight, this book asks what painters, photographers, poets, sculptors and performers have to teach us about seeing deeply.”

There is a flow of both process and experience articulated with these particular clients and their often deeply painful and acutely alive stories, and in this expansive referencing of artists’ understanding of their creative practices, coupled with current advances in neuroscience, perception, and some religious philosophies. However, Hidden Wonders is to my mind a book that someway fills that space where retreating religions in the West have allowed our own creative expansiveness to fill, if we so wish it. It is a strong challenge, not to succumb to the industrial ‘achievement’ mindset, or be lashed by depression in response to systemic failures and collapse and all its latent traps that bind us to its synthetic portals.

I’ve been rereading this book while on a break in England’s North East, staying in a small coastal town ravaged by its mining past. Elemental materials were not long ago hauled out from deep bowels beneath the town, and now, as the pandemic opens into another era here, it is currently awash with regeneration funding, promoting mining museum culture and walking breaks across moors and stunning coastline. Instead of cracking the earth and removing its core, this locality now seems to be all about promoting looking, stretching, walking, seeing, planting, and engaging with a remediated landscape.

I’ve been fixated on walking past all that, nodding and chatting to locals, admiring the many huts of the local pigeon fancying group (some 30,000 birds kept here for racing and message carrying), and getting in some serious beach time along the coast: looking, and seeing past the material, soaking up the elements and seeking to understand myself within this process of stones and sand. Ebb and flow. Time and tide. Human industry and human leisure.

I sense that we, the human-sphere, are in what writer and eco-philosopher Mick Collins calls the ‘transformocene’, not the ‘anthropocene’ as some say, where we as a species rise to transform our reliance upon industrialisation, economic dependence, and the mechanical thinking that has grown from these mindsets. As Fritjof Capra describes ‘the systems view of life’: to finally fully understand our place within the ecology of all things, perhaps returning to the biblical Garden of Eden, or in the holistic sense of animal nature within the Gaian theory, as proposed by James Lovelock et al.

Choosing another path

While this is not a book dealing with climate grief per se, it does point us toward tools of awareness, which is the key to healing from the overload of trauma, and how we respond to and hold news of this climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Holliday acutely picks up on our possible human response of calcifying, or cracking, as “Our human ecology is becoming overheated. A sign that environmental stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our nature.”

She wisely returns with another choice: “We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.”

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

Social movements, uprisings, rebellions, protests — all are about change and resistance to old ways, changing seemingly dominant narratives of doing and exploiting that ultimately damage the earth’s resources and exploit ourselves as a species. These are vital community-building events; whether or not the object of rebellion or resistance is changed, a community has been formed around a ‘thing’, and now the energy exists — and change will come. Transformation will occur, and we will overcome. Transformation of our own selves and our stuck patterns, of subtle griefs and trauma, will happen, and in this vital book, Susan Holliday gives paths and examples to return to our natural insight, and live within ‘the vital ecology of the human heart.’

“Seeing through the heart of our sorrow, we discover a realm of human nature full of hidden wonders. Reconnected to our own source of replenishment and renewal, we might begin to cherish, rather than to plunder, the natural world around us.”


Find out more

Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart: How to see through your sorrow – a creative guide to revelation and renewal by Susan Holliday (2021) is published by Troubador Publishing, where you can preview the book. You can find out more about Susan’s work as a psychotherapist and her writing and photography on Twitter @SusanHolliday0 and at susanholliday.co.uk.

James also mentions eco-philosopher Mick Collins and his proposal of the Transformocene in contrast to the concept of the Anthropocene. You can read more in Mark O’Connell’s 2018 Permaculture review of his book The Visionary Spirit. In April, Mick has a new book coming out, The Restorative Spirit, and James has recently been filming Mick for the launch.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Susan Holliday
Susan Holliday
A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit
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“Time to Act” — Failure & Success at COP26

Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.

Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.

For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.

Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.

Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires which he took to Glasgow for COP26.

We asked each artist/organiser four questions.

What did you do at COP26?

Miranda Whall

Heading to COP26 - showing artist Miranda Whall's crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Miranda Whall’s crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.

“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”

Warren Senders

Music4ClimateJustice performance, November 6th 2021: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ Terje Isungset composer and musicians performing on instruments carved from ice.

“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.

“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”

Mike Stubbs

Climate Emergency Services at COP26, Glasgow November 2021. Showing Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people
Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”

How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?

Miranda Whall

“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”

Showing Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

Warren Senders

“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.

“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' with Aparna Sindhoor Dance Company
Music4ClimateJustice performance on 6th November: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ with Aparna Sindhoor’s Encounter, dance theatre Inspired by indigenous people’s fight for their forest.

Mike Stubbs

“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”

What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?

Miranda Whall

“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”

Warren Senders

“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”

Mike Stubbs

“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”

COP26: Showing Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?

Miranda Whall

“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”

Warren Senders

“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.

“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26, 6th November 2021: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group
Music4ClimateJustice performance 6/11/21: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group. Most musicians in Zimbabwe are subsistence farmers. They are already suffering from extreme climate change.

Mike Stubbs

“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”


Find out more

Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:

5th November 2021 Journey Around the World in Space and Time  
6th November Rhythms, Words, and … Ice! 
7th November Strings and Threads That Tie Us Together 
8th November Music Beyond Boundaries 
8th November M4CJ Global Launch Show 
9th November Our Island Home 
10th November Turning Art Into Activism Part I 
11th November Turning Art Into Activism Part II 
12th November From the Ancient to the Future 

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice. You can read about him in this 2018 piece at the Climate Disobedience Center, in a 2011 Arts Fuse feature Playing For the Planet, and a 2019 piece for The Indian Express, This Hindustani singer does his riyaz on streets and warns people about climate change. You can hear Warren in this Radio Boston interview and performance from 2010: Boston-Area Percussionists Drum For The Planet. “When Medford resident Warren Senders first learned about the effects of climate change, he felt helpless. ‘I’m no scientist,’ Senders thought. ‘What can I possibly do to help?'”

Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.

Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.

Lola Perrin 
Lola Perrin 
A composer, pianist and collaborator on keyboard conversations about climate change with economists, lawyers, scientists, artists and other thinkers across the world.
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Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.
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Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.