Ecopoet Helen Moore reviews Her Whereabouts, a new collection from fellow poet Joanna Guthrie, whose accumulated acts of noticing and subtle inferences weave her mother’s debilitating strokes with ecological loss in the climate crisis into a poetic memoir.
1,130 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
In a striking second collection, Joanna Guthrie’s often filmic work forms a poetic memoir, chronicling the aftermath of two debilitating strokes suffered by her mother. In Her Whereabouts, there is a steady accumulation of precise acts of noticing, with images created as handholds to chart a terrain of deep uncertainty, as the poet comes to terms with the severe injuries sustained to her mother’s brain. This imagery frequently connects with the natural world, and through this a thread of concern about the climate crisis is woven.
In ‘The start of something going wrong’, the second poem in the book, we read of an occurrence which reminds us of the moments prior to the onset of a tsunami:
It rained fish. This was the herald.
They thumped down on the hillside like silver blades
or loose tongues sliding whole from heads.
Guthrie also fuses the language of storms, particularly of lightning strokes, with the “dry heat that was a whole new season / day out day in by your shrill bed” (‘Indian Summer’). Inside and outside become merged in a new location, where the family’s focus is the mother, who occupies the centre of a labyrinth in which husband and children struggle to orientate themselves. And to process the emotional fall-out.
Loss — the personal and the planetary
In ‘Gibbous, waning’ the moon is compared to “a wounded boat – / or else a balloon as it deflates”, which the poet comes to see as a mirror of her own experience: “it’s me who’s punctured, is the vessel on her side / the shrunk balloon.” Avoiding self-pity, Guthrie’s attention to detail delivers entirely unsentimental poems, which are nonetheless full of pathos. Her prose poem, ‘Synapse as muscle’, focuses on the habitual mothering patterns in her brain-damaged mother. While in the poem entitled ‘What aphasia said’, we read a series of non-sequiturs and neologisms, which result from ‘aphasia’, the language disorder caused by the strokes.
Her mother’s loss of language leads the poet to contemplate the role of the brain, which is brilliantly evoked as “a mothership / that grew itself in the dark”, and
A pinwheel emerging out of space
sprouting a tail
its grey tunnels knitted by you only
the cortex an intricate skullcap.
(‘Questions after the fact’)
Ultimately, this inspires a new sense of her mother’s presence, which is found primarily in her eyes. But in searching for ‘her whereabouts’, Guthrie touches into Buddhist philosophy through the concept of ‘pativedha’ — “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” — which moves her contemplation into the realm of quantum physics, as she sees her mother as “a loose collection / of nature in flux.” And herself “unscrewed”, “part of myself this balloon / tethered to a roof.” (‘Tiramisu’)
Despite existing in states of flux and radical uncertainty, there is nevertheless a commitment born of love to walk the labyrinth with her mother, and to surrender to the process of being alongside all that’s unfolding. Inevitably, there are moments of despair, (‘Isn’t this the end’) and dissolution (‘Arctic ice wakes up as liquid’). These poems voice both personal and planetary dimensions, and through them a sense of the ecological self emerges, as the poet’s voice becomes one with the fragmenting ‘I’ voice of the Arctic ice:
I am leaving a
am whole chunk of a
was whole chunk of a
Acts of noticing – learning from the more-than-human
Prolonged periods of uncertainty and waiting also yield heightened states of communion with the more-than-human world. Rooks. A stuffed Victorian Baboon. Cuckoo. Deer. A Chestnut tree for whom love is tenderly expressed. Amidst these touching poems, the title poem ‘Her whereabouts’ may be read as both a charting of the loss of her mother and the poet’s grief at ecological loss.
The loss shoots right down
to the feet, through some central shaft
like a flare descends a well, illuminating
mossy sides …
The named storms, which offer titles to poems (‘Irma’, ‘Dennis’), indicate the extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis. These Guthrie evokes as simultaneously relating to the family’s experience of a missing member:
soon a mouth will grin with
missing teeth, its gap our gap
and on she rails, no home
to go to, wired, pulling out
posts like pins from a new hem.
The dream image of a house on fire but “burning so slowly there was time / to rescue every cup” additionally suggests both the personal and planetary, while a poem entitled ‘The emergency’ touches specifically on the poet’s experience as a climate activist, and the collective struggle to find adequate words to express what’s occurring. Here the image of a Brushtail Possum waving a burnt paw to a camera, “like it was showing its passport / or like, Look what you did!” becomes the most poignant way to communicate what the reader assumes to be the catastrophic Australian bushfires that occurred between 2019-20, and in which I was personally caught up.
Might I have understood this without my direct experience? Impossible to say. But subtle inference is certainly a hallmark of this collection, the power of which is cumulatively built. As the book draws to a close, there is unsurprisingly no resolution — just an ongoing state of precarity, “teetering / like a bone china jug on a ledge” (‘The lintel’). With this, however, come fearless love and compassion, along with a willingness to help. In the penultimate poem, ‘Human, standing’ — the title itself a poignant image of survival — there is also a sense of learning from the more-than-human world, as the soil is evoked as “a sacred, slow master.”
Note: In writing my review of Joanna’s book, I have wanted to stay true to my own ecopoetic practice of giving capital letters to the names of more-than-human Beings.
Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and Nature connector who lives in North Dorset. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and you can read about the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in her post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature. And she contributed a video performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’ — inspired by attending a mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and featuring collages of transcript material from the court proceedings — for the Environmental Justice thread in our series on Environmental Keywords.
In their third collaborative post reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach,Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter explore the provocations this book offers for ecoart practices and discourse — complementing their earlier discussions on the book’s activities and case studies.
2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 20-minute video
In their previous collaborative posts on this book, participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd, and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter reviewed the earlier sections, which provide ecoart activities and case studies from around the world. The book ends with this section — a series of provocations where contributors from the international Ecoart Network focus on theories underpinning ecoart practices, offering ideas for creativity in different learning environments and communities. As you will see in their video discussion, our four artist-reviewers found many opportunities in the wide-ranging provocations on offer.
The full set of eleven provocations is:
— Allodoxic Interventions as a Form of Ecoart — Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning — A Framework for Ecosocial Art Practice: Integrating Guattari’s Ecosophy and Action Research — The Art of Inquiry: A Learning Manifesto — Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change: Interview with Newton Harrison — Village Triangles: Complexity with and Beyond Systems Thinking — The Role of Life-Centered Learning and Interdependency in an Interdisciplinary Curriculum — Curating Ecoart Practices: Interview with Amy Lipton — Scores for Climate Justice — Organizing the Approach to Sensitive Conditions: Applying a Boolean Analysis to Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism — A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief
Validation and realisation
Claire and Nicky both selected Hans Dieleman’s Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. For Claire, the piece resonated strongly: “The whole provocation to me felt like a massive validation. Yes, finally someone gets the relevance, the point of what I’m actually doing! So I just read the whole thing with a huge smile on my face.” For Nicky, this provocation had meaning because of a lack she perceives in modern education:
“I had enormous freedom as a child. I was given the ‘bones structure’ of how to do something and then sent off to play quite a lot, which children today seem to rarely get outside of Forest School. I’ve come to realise more and more that for some children the whole of school is just not a good idea … I love the fact that at some point in there, he says artists have the ’embodied and enacted knowing’, so they are key. I thought that’s interesting, that’s where I feel the connection to it. Yes, I feel that that for me is not difficult, it’s effortless — and trying to explain it to other people is so hard.”
Nicky also highlighted Newton Harrison’s Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change as a good example of using an interview to convey the value of collaborative approaches and as an alternative format among the more essay-like pieces: “I liked the fact that it was written as an interview; I found it easier to read than a piece of text if the text had been that long.”
And Beckie also chose this example to focus on, sharing that she was attracted to Newton and Helen Harrison’s work together as artists. “That was why I went to it because I’m really interested in how you do more collaboration around ecoart, and work with people so you can bounce off them and not do things alone. I think that’s a really important way forward for art. It’s not doing things in isolation, it’s doing things in community, and it’s working against that whole myth of the artist being this solo creative genius doing things on their own — that doesn’t work in the world in the same way anymore.”
Ecoart creativity for grief and love
Genevieve chose Ruth Wallen’s A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief, having also looked at Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. Whereas the latter offered a boost, speaking to the value of the practice, the provocation on ecological grief “spoke to something deeper in me. … It made me think of the work of ONCA and the Remembrance of Lost Species Day and that sense of ritual practice.
“And this feels like it’s coming from a very different direction, really facing that pain, that difficulty, and the total avoidance of that that happens a lot. This feels like the real guts of it … It’s hard and it’s scary. And I think the framing of this as the last piece in the book felt really powerful. … This is our real lived experience, loss. There it is, at the end of the book, before the bibliography, the closing of the book. The quiet power of that.”
This sparked a very interesting series of reflections between all four on our approaches to death — of people, of habitats and species — and how art might have a role in dealing with these endings. Might ecoartists create rituals for loss, for example, maybe taking provocations from the book as a way into using or developing some of its earlier activities and case studies? Beckie reflected that “This is why a lot of us do it. It’s at the heart of why most of us are here. And I feel like there’s this incredibly fine line between grief and love, where they’re always intertwined. How do you get into the heart of that when it’s culturally avoided? … Drawing that out with some compassion and some humour is a very tricky but potentially beautiful thing.”
From provocations back to activities
Reflecting on this section as a whole, Claire said that although the text of some of the provocations might seem wordy and “you do have to sit in a quiet space with a cup of tea where no one’s going to interrupt you … once you get into that it kind of takes you somewhere, I think: it is a provocation, like a space where you enter … It feels different to the other two sections in the sense that I think I could have just sat there with a notepad and pen and made loads of mind maps…”
And delving into the final section of a book like this does naturally invite reflections on the book as a whole and on this shared experience of it, as Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky did in the final part of their time together. This was also an opportunity to think about how the book might be updated or adapted in ways that fellow artists might find even more valuable.
Nicky: “I think it’s a really, really good resource, and I know that over time I will go back and look up some more of the people and the ideas. I really enjoyed, last time [the case studies] going in more deeply and looking them up to see these people speaking about their work and to see examples. That’s been an absolute joy. I wondered if it would be nice with each case study, if it would be possible, to have a short interviewy bit with the person who’d written it, just to find out what drives them.”
Beckie: “I think I love this book. And really I love the process of doing this together as well. I feel like I’ve got so much out of the different bits we’ve all chosen and the different ways we’ve gone into it and interpreted it. I would like a map for this book. I think I find it a bit overwhelming, that it is so big and so full of text and I don’t know where to start. And when you’ve pulled back the layers, it’s so deep and it’s so rich and there are so many gems in there — but I don’t see it when I flick through. And I have a tendency to read books backwards, so sometimes I want pictures and I want a map, something to just grab me a little bit and pull me into a page. There’s so many amazing ideas in here and I’m excited to read more of them, and I’m just thinking about the best way to dip into it for me, as well.”
Genevieve: “A book like this usually takes me years to read. I am a slow reader. Doing it all together has really brought it alive and I really love the process. This would be perfect as a ‘book club’ book. Trying out the different workshop sessions on each other — that could be another way that other audiences could connect with it. It is a lot, but it feels like something I want to keep going back to.”
Claire: “I am a visual learner so the fact there are so few pictures. … Something to help guide you through, because it is so huge… I do think the accessibility of it for people who are dyslexic or neurodiverse or come at things from a different perspective and maybe aren’t able to sit and read loads and loads of text, that could be a barrier that I do think we need to acknowledge. So, some keys or some guides or maps.”
Nicky: “They do have the themes that they’ve pulled out, but don’t give you the ability to look through by themes. On an online book you could do that: you could use them as tags and look back. You could colour code those. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the cover is so colourful and the book is so uncolourful?”
Beckie: “It’s not a comment on the quality of the book, because there’s so much in it: it’s like an addition.”
All four saw the book as a starting point, a help when thinking through future activities, but also a great support in terms of offering contexts for their practices and evidence of the great heritage that the work of ecoartists offers internationally — as well as a stimulus for rich conversations such as these in the shared review process. In a sense perhaps, the book acts as one of its own provocations: a collaborative practice that has brought together a mix of approaches in theories and examples that offer valuable insight and stimulus.
As Nicky observes: “Art is part of our shared culture and at all levels it contributes to the ongoing conversation by reaching parts that other methods just don’t permeate. We believe because we feel, and art helps us to communicate and sense emotions. Ecoart is providing a vital bridge between us and the rest of nature. We seem unable to stop our destructive behaviour through factual knowledge alone; we need to feel it in our bones.”
Completing this phase of what promises to be an ongoing conversation between them, our four artist-reviewers came up with a provocation of their own to share. Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky hope that you will find in this a way to recognise, reflect and move on with experiences of ecological loss in your own neighbourhood and the grief this entails.
Make space to notice and connect with ecological loss. Where is this happening in your local patch? In gardens, public spaces, high streets or developed land, for example.
Create a simple ritual to honour the moment — such as a sipping on a foraged tea, creating a ‘gathered material’ mandala, walking barefoot or scattering (native, environment-appropriate) seeds. The ‘right’ ritual will emerge as you spend time in the space of loss. Remember to take good care — of yourself, of others, of the place you are in — as you embark on this discovery.
And, when your ritual encounter with this loss has settled in the moment, look also for something that offers you hope. Something nearby, on the ground or water, among plants or trees, or in the sky. Whether ‘human’ or ‘natural’, mark this sign of ecological hope amidst grief.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 World. Nick’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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.”
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 bookThe Visionary Spirit. In April, Mick has a new book coming out, The Restorative Spirit, and James has recently been filming Mick for the launch.