Towards an Erotics of Place

Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape

My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…

Desert Quartet - the cover of the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.

It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.

Dungeness, southern England’s ‘shingle desert’
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

Desert Quartet — desert life

Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!

Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.

Mongolia
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories…  Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.

My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways. 

A desert calling

Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.

At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.

Desert Quartet - showing a page from the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
‘Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape’, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank

I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…

“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.


Find out more

Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).

You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, at Unusual Places. And there is more to discover at Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”

The Visionary Spirit: Awakening to the Imaginal Realm in the Transformocene Age by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, UK (2018). You can read an interview with Mick about the book: Awakening to the Transformocene Age. Mick talks about his previous book, The Unselfish Spirit, in this 2014 podcast and you can watch his recent talk at the Into The Wild Festival, Summer 2019, introduced by James.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding is the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”

You can watch James’ film Steadfast, and more of his films, on Vimeo. And don’t forget to check out Finding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts, “Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.

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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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

Writer Kelvin Smith‘s three objects — electric lighting, symbolically living money, once-and-future reefs — question what is fundamental to human presence on Earth, what’s been taken from the land and what new creations might arise in future seas.


1,900 words — approximate reading time 7.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The electric Iolanthe

My mother used to tell the story of how electricity came to her village. It must have been some time in the 1920s, when she was a little girl. One day work on the village transformer had been completed and a single light bulb was lit up on the top. Everyone in the village danced around it.

Bear in mind this was not an isolated spot deep in the country, but a village no more than ten miles from the huge mass of mill chimneys in Central Lancashire. This was a major European industrial region, but one in which her village, Woodhouses, had had to wait many years for the ‘new’ power source to be introduced. Not perhaps that anyone felt the need. In the century recently ended the house where she was later born had been built with large windows to let in the daylight for the silk weavers who then lived there. Sunlight and gaslights were good enough for the schools, churches and other aspects of village life. They were not hampered by the lack of electric light and power, and it would be many years until labour saving electric and electronic gadgets entered the home.

electric performance: showing Jessie Bond as Iolanthe in 1882
Jessie Bond as Iolanthe at the Savoy Theatre in 1882

One of the major social cultural activities of the village was the Woodhouses Church Amateur Operatic Society, and its annual staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My mother was a regular performer and her high point was an appearance as Iolanthe. I later learned that Iolanthe was the first work to premiere at the Savoy Theatre on 25 November 1882, and it was the first new theatre production in the world to be illuminated entirely with electric lights. Radio, films, music performance and recording, television, and all the wonders of the Internet would follow over the next 140 years using the miracle of electricity.

electric heritage: showing the plaque at the Savoy Theatre in London, commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity..
Savoy Theatre, London: Plaque commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity.
Photograph: Mick Lobb © 2011 (CCL) www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3010211

Electricity has been as the core of our lives since then, and I wonder, even with generation of electricity by solar, wind and other renewables, if it is right to think of electricity as fundamental to the future of the planet. Can the continued generation, transmission, and storage of electricity really be the only option to maintain a human presence on Earth?

The colour of money

Like many people who have travelled I have a stash of unused currency, coins and banknotes, mostly now invalid, but kept for the feel and smell and for the memories they contain.

The coins are brute metal, the same metal that makes bombs and bullets, the metal of shrieking transportation, the metal of blades that cut crops and butcher beasts.

There is metal in the earth and on the earth, in the skies and in the air, in the water and under the water. It is dissolved and discarded, the metal of industry and the metal of war, the metal of sport and the metal of experimentation. It rusts and decays, but slowly, colouring rocks and leaving sediments, making acids and colourful salts, changing appearance and behaviour, causing trouble and making things go off-kilter. The base metals, the precious and workaday minerals come from all continents. Where do we find our iron, copper, nickel, platinum, silver, gold and more; diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and all the parts that decorate bodies and badges of power, crowns and cutting tools? The same places where coal, asbestos, oil is brought forth from the earth.

There are images and icons on the coins, but I am most struck with the images on the notes. There are, of course, leaders and other famous faces, but there are also birds and animals (elephant, water buffalo, armadillo) and crops (tea, tobacco, maize), tractors and people carrying sacks on their heads. All represent what money can buy, but they also hold the secrets of what money can do.

A collection of banknotes left over from my travels
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

In this Earth we have forced living things to come to us for profit or pleasure, living things made dead for commerce: animal skin clothing, nostrums and potions made of teeth, horn, internal organs and sexual parts. People have turned land into plantations of commercial crops: tea and coffee, coca and cacao, tobacco and bananas, flax and sisal. All of this was done with no concern for the people who were there, who were shipped out, enslaved or indentured, beaten and burnt. Now, converted to foreign creeds, they may make a living from folklore and foreigners, smiling and selling to cruise ship crowds and other travelling charlatans.

The metal and paper tokens remind me of what has been taken, what impoverishment has been caused, what degradation of people and place, what stripping of surface soils and deeper sediments. The people, the creatures and the things that have been taken from the earth now lie on its surface, in its waters and in its air. They will not go back into the land they came from.

A new coral reef

The future is in a piece of coral found on a faraway beach, now covered with mould and mosses in a Suffolk garden. It comes from a period when I would regularly fly to that part of the world, passing over the peak of a dead volcano, noticing each time that there was a little less snow. On the way back north, looking into the dark from high above, I would often see flame lines across the wide semi-arid top of the continent.

This coral came from a beach where it had washed up, already dead, but still carrying the delicate marks made by its creators, small repeated patterns discernible now as the matter crumbles under the pressure of green growth and northern weather. The beach where it came from was, we heard, earmarked for development by a foreign hotel company, but at the time it was clean uncluttered sand, and the only sign of human life was what remained of an abandoned sisal plantation on the hills above. This large expanse was crisscrossed with abandoned small-gauge railway tracks, unseen mostly but felt as a judder whenever the vehicle bounced over them. It was a paradise beach, the remains of a colonial exploitation, from which I took a single piece of dead coral.

electric life - showing a piece of dead coral comes alive again
A piece of dead coral found on a beach in Southern Tanzania in the 1990s comes alive again in Suffolk in 2020
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

Why is this a sign for the future? It is a message of the calm before the next storm. This coral’s reef home, the place where it had lived and died, is unrecorded and unregistered. The other sea creatures are unremembered too.

The white rocklike thing that decays in the English winter is a lost thing with no connection to its origins or to the future. But in the future there may be another reef, not coral now (that is all long dead), but made of constructed things, a reef framed on waste and redundant manufactures, artificial, self-evolved or bioengineered, destined to eat plastics, dung and multifarious detritus, taking on a life and a purpose of its own. Covering the flooded foreshores and coastal cities, cleaving to the metal and the concrete, collecting life from oils and plastics, assaying them for edibility, and beginning the long munching and mulching, the centuries-long work of realigning the chemical and biological structures of the planet. I imagine that these creatures will make colours too, and magical shapes, will evolve pattern, and rhythms to support new forms and adaptation of an earthly life.

Some beings may see these wonderful creations but they will not be us. If there are people still, they will not live near these new oceans and estuaries. They will protect themselves from further damage. They will have no memory.

Survivors will stay far inland, on high points, collecting precipitated liquids, adapting to a diet of who-knows-what organic matter. Humans will breed at random but with difficulty. We will not know a past and will stop imagining a future. We will not have stories to tell. We will look down the slopes and valleys and fear the shifting surfaces of the coral’s realm. We will not try to be powerful again for a very long time. We will have lost the world and our souls, but the new reef will carry on growing.

***

To return to my mother. Her appearance as Iolanthe was often spoken of at home and I particularly remember the story of one young village lad who was asked what he thought about the performance. “It were all right,” he said, “until that bugger came up all covered in seaweed.”

So it might be when the first human plucks up courage to go down to the new shoreline, test the waters around the new plasticised reef, enter the liquid morass and come up covered with … what?


Find out more

You can read a short account of the first use of electric lighting in a public building, at the Savoy Theatre in 1881, at the Read the Plaque site: “Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, supplied about 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, and the lights were powered by a 120 horsepower generator on open land near the theatre. [Richard D’Oyley] Carte explained why he had introduced electric light: ‘The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.’ … Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of the new technology.” Jessie Bond’s own reminiscences include an unexpected reference to another electric innovation at the Savoy: “The improved stage fittings and increased space of the Savoy Theatre made it possible to present ‘Iolanthe’ much more effectively and elaborately than any of the previous operas. There was a great sensation when the fairies tripped in with electric stars shining in their hair – nothing of the sort had ever been seen before …”

As the Engineering Timelines site explains, the public supply and use of electricity was initially quite slow to take off in Britain: Michael Faraday discovered the principles for generating and transforming electricity in the 1830s, but it was several decades before this took over from the established technologies of steam and gas. “It was clear from early on that the investment and infrastructure required for an electrical industry would make electricity a very costly commodity compared with the other well-established technologies. Indeed once it did start, progress was slow.” The first town to have electric street lighting was Godalming in Surrey, also in 1881.

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith
A writer and campaigner engaging publishers in the Climate Crisis, to act now for decisive moves to repurpose publishing for the new age of climate adaptation
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #10

Citizen artist Yky offers three objects that explore Anthropocene themes of our relationship with time and the world and the responsibility that we hold in our own hands, using a common photographic presentation to help make these visible.


600 words: estimated reading time 2.5 minutes


The Anthropocene is an amazing concept. On one hand, experts are still trying to find evidence of human activity through geological deposits proving that we have left the Holocene period that started about 12,000 years ago. On the other hand, more and more citizens acknowledge the principle of a drastic change impacting our daily lives due to our unsustainable way of life. On one hand, the compelling need of a proof that is never satisfied with the idea of the best possible assumption. On the other, a critical awareness of our environment. Proof opposed to perception. Objectivity opposed to subjectivity. And in-between, a crying child begging adults to listen to science.

Time in our hands

Three pictures, linking past present and future. All of them in my hands. All of them in our hands. A link creating the continuity between humans and nonhumans that could possibly be visible. Will our awareness go further than simply realizing the mistakes we have made?

Showing 'The Past in Our Hands' - the Venus de Laussel, by Yky
Venus.
Image © Yky 2020

In the beginning was Art. Like a Venus 25,000 years old, with its own symbolic and sacred function talking to ancients and echoing shamanic rituals. Mankind and nature as one unique entity.

The present in our hands - coal. Image by Yky.
Charbon
Image: Yky © 2020

Today is Coal. Still the most important and polluting source of energy worldwide. Its usage took off in Britain during the sixteenth century, as extracting wood fuel for growing cities became harder and costlier. Switching from a renewable energy to a fossil source…

The future in our hands - Time. Image by Yky.
Cadran
Image: Yky © 2020

Tomorrow is a question of Time. For a geologist, time is meaningful over millions of years. For the crying child, tomorrow seems already too late. ‘Time is relative,’ Einstein would have said. But not any longer. The notion of time refers now to our own responsibility. If Mother Earth could be seen as just 24 hours old, mankind only appeared during the last 5 seconds. It is time to realize the true meaning of the Anthropocene.


Find out more 

The Venus pictured here is the Venus de Laussel, a 46cm limestone bas-relief of a nude woman that is approximately 25,000 years old and associated with the Gravettian Upper Paleolithic culture. It was discovered in 1911 in the Dordogne, southwestern France, where it had been carved into the limestone of a rock shelter. It is currently displayed in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.

Coal — a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock — formed when dead plant matter decayed into peat and was then converted by the heat and pressure of deep burial over millions of years during the late Carboniferous and early Permian times (about 300 – 360 million years ago). Although used throughout history in places with easily accessible sources, it was the development of pit mining and then the Industrial Revolution in Britain that “led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel. In 1700, five-sixths of the world’s coal was mined in Britain. Britain would have run out of suitable sites for watermills by the 1830s if coal had not been available as a source of energy.”

You can explore the story of the formation of the Earth and its life as visualised in a single day in this Quizlet collection of flashcards (with a summary underneath). And the Deep Time Walk app and cards explore the full story in fascinating detail; with these cards, each one covers 100 million years, and humans arrive only with card 47… You can read ClimateCultures reviews of the cards and the app.

And, of course, do explore the many more contributions to our unique series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects — from poets, non-fiction writers, gallery curators, visual artists, creative producers …

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Othering — on Woodlands, Maps and Language

Artist Jo Dacombe explores the othering of woodlands through maps and language as bordering us off from the natural world, and looks to ways to reconnect.

 


2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has written that Othering is a defining feature of Western culture:

“Some authors (notably Said, 1985, 1994) have argued that Western identity and culture are fundamentally forged by an othering logic, one that dehumanizes or devalues other people, such as primitives, uncivilized, orientals, blacks, non-believers, women and so forth. An essential feature of othering is denying the Other his/her own voice, denying him/her the opportunity to speak for him/herself and instead attributing qualities, opinions and views that refer to one’s own identity and culture.”

Othering occurs to non-human subjects too. It also occurs in relation to our environments. This Othering of Nature has been discussed by thinkers such as Latour and Levi-Strauss; the Enlightenment enabled this dichotomy in order for humans to exploit nature to their own ends.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Emphasising intellectual and scholarly methods and using reason for gaining knowledge, the ideas of the Enlightenment worked against religious, spiritual or traditions of knowledge and thus elevated the European intellect to the highest status. One could argue that this set up the eventual split between the human world of reason and intellect, and Other worlds of spirituality or non-humans. Thinkers of the Enlightenment saw nature as a source to study and the wild as something to be controlled, to be subjugated under the will of humans, and thus the natural world could be exploited by human domination to suit their needs.

Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing

Othering creates borders. We try to describe our environments using maps. We draw geography and delineate between this area and that. In essence, borders are made-up, imagined edges. They may make our map drawing a little easier and our politics more manageable, but they are still not real. Birds and animals have a sense of territory, sometimes, though perhaps not all of them. But certainly plants don’t stick to their own area in quite the same way; perhaps they have a more accidental way of landing and then surviving where the conditions are right. Animals, plants and birds all attempt to find a space in which the area and resources are what they need to survive. Humans carve out their territories for similar reasons, but there seems to be a more calculated motive, which can become about expansion for the sake of it, going too far with ideas of world domination. There seems more ego in it.

I love maps. They can be beautiful works of art and fascinating time capsules of a place. However they are also powerful, and as with all power theirs can be used or abused. A map presents a place from the perspective of the mapmaker. Every mapmaker has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and this will depend on what the mapmaker thinks is important, corresponding to his or her own personal bias. Maps are all about drawing borders, identifying areas of particular characteristics, placing points of interest within contexts; sometimes imposing those contexts. Thus, maps can be tools of Othering. By creating maps of particular areas, we also create Other areas. 

Oliver Rackham writes of the changing maps of woodlands over the centuries. Ancient woods marked on maps appear now much as they were in earlier maps of 1580; zigzag outlines, boundaries that go around individual large trees, maps drawn to describe the natural boundaries set out on the ground, not from a draughtman’s office. Straight lines on maps do not appear until 1700, when woods started to be grubbed out or enlarged. These altered boundaries appear regularly curved or straight. 

“In Planned Countryside the irregular shapes of ancient woods sit awkwardly among the straight hedges laid out around them by Enclosure Act commissioners. In Ancient Countryside, the ghost of a grubbed-out wood may haunt the map as the irregularly-shaped perimeter of a ‘Wood farm’ whose internal hedges are anomalously straight.”

These imposed boundaries were due to Enclosures of land, and marking out forest areas as royal preserves. Gamekeeping in Britain specifically contributed to separating people from woodlands, unlike in France, Germany and Switzerland where “ancient woods are everyone’s heritage; in Britain alone have we lost that birthright, and with it our knowledge and love of the woods.”

Putting Nature in its place

And yet we do have a love for the woods, but I would argue that this is a different sort of love from the one that Rackham describes. For many of us, woodlands are like a brief flirtation rather than a commitment like marriage. We go to the woods to escape. We see them as places that are separate from our everyday lives, and that is why we love them. They are places for ‘nature’ and reserves for wildlife. We are happy with wildlife when it is in ‘its place’, in other words, not in our place.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 1. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 1
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Woodlands are often ‘other’ to the modern human world. They are a place of nature, a retreat, something to be preserved in a ‘natural’ and untouched state, not to be interfered with by human activity. They are to be kept for us to enjoy when we visit, but not to become part of our modern way of life. The two things are separate.

On the one hand this could be positive; the Othering of the natural environment means we have an urge to conserve it, to admire it, not to interfere with it too much, surely this is a good thing. However my view is that the Othering of nature means that we become more and more disconnected from our natural environments and from woodlands. They become a desirable thing for our leisure time, but there is a danger then that perhaps they are not a necessity when resources are scarce. Woodlands are valued and magical, they are precious to us in a way, like a beautiful object kept in a glass case. In my book Imagining Woodlands I have written about the Enchantment of woodlands and the notion that they are faeryworlds, or otherworlds. But these faery stories and folk tales add to the Othering of woodlands as distinct from the human world.

This has not always been the case. Once the woodlands in Britain were an important part of everyday human lives. People worked in and with forests. Woodlands were places of industry as much as leisure, where wood was gathered for a variety of uses, livestock were grazed there, and charcoal was produced as fuel. It is my belief that when woodlands were connected to us in this way, as something we lived on, relied on and thus valued, that the woodlands were more likely to be conserved by us as something essential. It was not Other. It was a part of us, and we were a part of the woods.

Our language contributes to this act of Othering. Our language both reflects and shapes the way we perceive things. It is almost impossible to speak about the natural world without Othering it – there I go again! Just by uttering those words, ‘the natural world’, I have made it separate from the alternative, the ‘human world’.  Yet there are cultures that do not have a word for nature because they do not see it as a separate entity, such as small scale communities in the Amazon and the Malaysian rainforests.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 2. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 2
Photograph by Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Currently there is a national drive to plant more trees, to mitigate the effect of imminent climate breakdown. To re-wild, and re-forest. But these things will not overcome the Othering of the woodlands. Perhaps planting new street-trees would be more effective; integrating swathes of trees into our everyday lives and right up to our front doors.

I grew up on a street called The Avenue. It was lined with large-leaved linden trees. Every day I would say hello to these trees, and watch as they sprouted new twigs at the base, bright red new sprouts that would bear pale yellow-green, large heart-shaped leaves. I would notice the colours changing with the seasons, fear the wasps that would gather in late summer to sip from the stickiness on the leaves, and worry about the black spots that sometimes appeared. I knew those trees well, and they were a part of my daily life. Now I’m older, I still feel a particular affinity with linden trees and I always recognise them and feel that strong connection. Other trees I have got to know since, but it has often been a more forced relationship, as I have felt I ought to know more species’ names and learn about them. But linden trees I grew up with, and I still miss them now that I live on a road without trees.

Perhaps a change in our language could help too. There is a fascinating section in Rackham’s book about the many Anglo-Saxon words for woodlands, many for which their specific meanings have been lost. These words demonstrate the greater connection they had with woodlands, and how they reflected the way they thought of woodlands in different contexts. For example, feld is an open space in sight of woodlands, with which to contrast it. A ley or a hurst appear to mean inhabited space surrounded by woodland. These words show how woodlands were a part of a wider, connected landscape, rather than a separated area on its own. Perhaps our language needs to expand to reflect this way of thinking again; to develop a lexicon to describe landscape relationships rather than separate features.

Old English consisted of a vocabulary of short words, and so used composite words to expand the vocabulary, which we know from the long saga poems such as Beowulf. For example, a whale is referred to as an ‘ocean-rider’, using two words combined to be descriptive of the animal. Often this was a way of creating the correct alliteration that was required by the poem, but it also produced beautifully descriptive new words.

I wonder if this is a way we could create new words to better describe our landscapes? To start to generate those connections between objects and surroundings, to embed things fully into the landscape and the way we speak of it? ‘Street-tree’ is one example, placing the tree in a particular type of location. How could we use words to better describe the different types of woodland? ‘Slope-spruce-holt’ for trees on a mountain side? (Holt being the Old English word for a wood of predominantly one species.) ‘Poplar-shimmer-shaw’ for the effect of a line of white poplar trees from a distance when the wind turns their leaves over to show the pale side? (Shaw meaning a small wood on a boundary.)

How would this way of using language change our relationship with the natural world around us? Would naming the specificity of woodlands make them more personal, more valuable, and better connect us to them?


Find out more

Jo Dacombe is currently creating a book of words and images called Imagining Woodlands, which will be available in 2020. You can read Jo’s earlier ClimateCultures post, Bone Landscapes, describing her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.

Oliver Rackham’s classic The History of the Countryside was originally published in 1986 and is to be reissued by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2020.

You can read Yiannis Gabriel’s 2012 post The Other and Othering – a short introduction at his website.

And you can explore The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017), published by Penguin. The book “seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us” and has generated a set of songs, available from the same site.

Jo Dacombe
Jo Dacombe
A multimedia artist creating work, installations and interventions, interested in mapping, walking, public space, sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects.
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The Last Snows

The Sphinx - photography: by Nick HuntWriter Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.


710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.

In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.

Garbh Coire Mòr - Photographby Nick Hunt
Garbh Coire Mòr
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

An Arctic outpost

After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.

A tundra landscape - photograph by Nick Hunt
A tundra landscape
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.

Sphinx - photography: by Nick Hunt
Sphinx
Photography: Nick Hunt © 2019

First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.

Pinnacles - photograph by Nick Hunt
Pinnacles
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.

I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.

'Critically endangered' - photograph by Nick Hunt
‘Critically endangered’
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Endangered snows

When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.

In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.

Scraps of Deep Time - photograph by Nick Hun
Scraps of Deep Time
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.

At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.


Find out more

With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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