The Next Dawn of Everything — Stories of Human Cultures

Writer and researcher Jules Pretty explores stories that reveal how human cultures don’t converge on one ‘advanced’ model, as our current views of history assume, finding in The Dawn of Everything rich accounts of diversity, freedom and hope.


2,750 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes


These days, we find ourselves in the midst of world-spanning crises of climate, nature and social inequality. All three have the same proximate causes: a type of economy that promotes too much material consumption and a dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. Something is about to change. Yet we have never been here before. We are in the dark forest, at our darkest hour, and we are not sure if we can choose a new path.

We often don’t know what to do when great moments of transformation in life appear: the rites of passage from small to big school, a first date, your first day in a new job, a baby in the family, a friend’s death, your own advancing mortality. We have no plan for what happens next. There is no rehearsal – apart from stories that tell how others have crossed their own thresholds. We are going to need ways to open up the world ahead, where fear could still be one of our greatest emotions.
Most of life is inconceivable. Living without fossil fuels seems so, for many people. Living without air pollution from cars, also seems inconceivable.

The Red Queen said to Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed, as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

Should we think of a new diet, perhaps less meat and more oat milk; should we buy an electric car now or later, fly less and cycle more; insulate our home or install solar panels, listen to the birds, have coffee with a friend? Well, one of these, then maybe another one, soon after.

The point is this: we have choices. We just may not realise this yet.

There emerges a need for new forms of story-telling, combined with a language of kindness and generosity. Kindness is both our common state and best response to threat. It is selfishness that is the outlier.

What kinds of language and values might we use to find our ways out of these deep woods? Berthold Brecht wrote in 1939:

“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We find ourselves now in need of stories with hope, and then to explore how to use these to create more effective agency to address the great crises of these times. Fast transitions, regime shifts and positive tipping points are beginning to occur, showing that new ways of living can be just and fair.

Calling time on ideas of linear evolution of human cultures

This is where a brilliant, clear, refreshing and fabulous synthesis of a book comes in. It is called The Dawn of Everything, and draws on recent archaeological evidence and anthropological insight to say highly salient things about human history.

The authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, say: most accounts of pre-modern human history “simply aren’t true, they have dire political implications, and make the past dull.”

This is interesting, not least because this book is also about the future.

Storie of human cultures: Showing the cover of 'The New Dawn of Everything', by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

The authors are willing to call out many contemporary commentators who believe in linear evolution of human ideas and cultures (the ecological determinists and evolutionary psychologists, for example), and who say that modern life must be superior to all that has gone before. Graeber and Wengrow call these “dismal conclusions”, and “prejudices dressed up as facts.”

For this book is about freedoms, not the “weird arguments” made by many in support of modern and high-consumption ways of living and organizing. We are neither at the top nor the end of a process of betterment. What has gone before was more diverse, egalitarian and astonishing than many would think.

Human cultures of the past have always diverged; they have not converged on one model perceived as more advanced or even perfect.

This book also overturns ideas about the assumed superiority of agriculture over foraging-hunting-gathering, and of city civilisations over agrarian. It also suggests that large-scale public engagement leads to innovative and diverse futures. People have always valued the things they do and places they live as extensions of identity, and so have often and explicitly refused to adopt practices and ideas from other people and places.

This cultural refusal is a key finding (it is not rejection on the grounds of being better; it is about something just being for other people and not for us).

Cultures can also get stuck, becoming less innovative. Many cultures and cities were abandoned after hundreds of years of continuity when people just walked away. They got stuck, and decided to seek something new. They sought the next dawn of everything.

Story-tellers for ‘stuck’ times

Stories of human cultures: showing Mayan masks from Guatemala
Mayan masks from Guatemala. Photograph © Jules Pretty

There are numerous valuable findings from this wonderful book.

First, humans are not inevitably nasty and selfish. More often than not, cultures and cities have been egalitarian.

Human cultures are projects of self- and co-creation. They emerge from engagement, participation, story and sense-making.

Human cultures do not converge on one model, and one model does not follow another (e.g. agriculture after foraging). All cultures diverge in space and over time. Wherever and whenever we look, there is endless human diversity. No single system is preferred, and evolutionary stages do not exist, where one model of life inevitably follows another.

Evidence from all the world over shows the enormous long-distance interactions between people and cultures. We have always lived in a small world politically and culturally connected. People travelled and journeyed to see and learn from other places. Recent DNA testing of skeletons shows much higher rates of interaction. Human cultures have never been isolated or biologically “pure.”

At times, cultures do get stuck, thinking they know or have it all. The modern era of neoliberalism and planetary nature and climate crises is an example of being stuck. We are living now in the latest of “stuck times.”

All human cultures engage in refusal. They know what others are doing, but in order to remain true to their own identities, they commonly refuse to adopt certain other technologies and ideas. Some foragers lived alongside agriculture for 3,000 years, and refused to adopt it. Some city states knew all about metal and the wheel, and again refused to use them.

Of course, non-conformists exist in every culture. What differs is how each culture reacts to them. Many cultures in history valued non-conformists (such as tricksters, jesters, story-tellers, shamans, and the physically and mentally diverse), seeing them contributing to diversity and divergence.

Agriculturalists and forager-hunter-gatherers lived side-by-side for thousands of years. In many places, cultures used different modes of living during different seasons; some foraged and took up agriculture; some farmed for hundreds of years and adopted foraging.

Foragers-hunters-gatherers established many cities and monumental cultures, and engaged in small-scale gardening and domestication of what we now call weedy species.

There was also oscillation within years and across seasons: within years some people foraged-hunted-gathered for certain seasons, and then farmed in others; some peoples developed different social structures and even personal names in different seasons of the year (a ruler in one season, people’s assemblies in another). Seasonality of values and identity is still with us – we behave differently during Christmas and Ramadan, during long holidays (the French grand vacances). People set aside work, for a bit, and affirm values in community, family, giving and resting.

Many city states and cultures had no kings, queens or rulers, no palaces or temples. People governed through assemblies, councils (as often women-led as by men). Some cities built public baths, others huge social housing projects. Many created co-housing units larger than for single families (long-houses). The traditions of long-houses for co-living continued to Norse-Icelandic culture, the Pacific North-West, and in rainforest forager cultures worldwide.

After a time, many cultures simply hit a wall. They stop. They are abandoned. It seems people in them choose to go and create something different. Most were not conquered or beaten by war.

Active choices and human futures

Showing wheat from Suffolk.
Wheat from Suffolk. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Catalhöyük was long thought of as one of the first agricultural sites and cities. But the people are now known to have preferred and celebrated wild aurochs over domesticated cattle. They knew about the latter for 1,000 years, yet never used them. Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, there are many examples of refusal: cities that knew about agriculture for 3,000 years, yet never adopted it. Such refusals were not irrational or silly: they were on the grounds of choices about practices that defined others who were not them. People want to stay as themselves.

The first organised city cultures in the world were not in Mesopotamia, but at the mega-sites and mammoth houses of current Ukraine-Moldova (4100-3300 BCE), each with huge central assembly places for exchange, sharing and decision-making. Individual cities were 300 hectares in size, contained co-living houses, and reached populations of 10,000 people.

In today’s California, the dozens of cultures and language groups centred on only foraging-hunting-gathering are sometimes described as existing because agriculture failed to reach them. Yet there was interaction with agricultural communities of the greater south-west. They also knew about agriculture, and refused to use it.

Poverty Point in Louisiana of today contains some of the largest mounds in the Americas. These cities were built around 1400 BCE by forager-hunter-gatherers. In Japan, the Jomon culture comprised 14,000 years of (pre-rice) forager culture, producing cycles of settlement, craft, storage, and traditions of building things and breaking them down again (traditions that continue to today in Shinto and Buddhist culture).

Teotihuacan in central America was a city culture on eight square miles of land. It had no central ruler, nor did it adopt the ball courts, kings and palaces of nearby Tikal and Calikmal. Teotihuacan was egalitarian, with stone social housing containing plumbing and sanitation, each finely decorated with art and images (much psychedelic). After 500 years, Teotihuacan was abandoned. Again, we today do not know exactly why.

The largest city culture in the Americas before modern times was Cahokia (in current Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi). The city had a population of 15,000, and flourished for 300 years between 1050-1350 CE. The people were forager-hunter-gatherers, supplemented with gardens with domesticated sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed and mayweed. Cahokia and all the surrounding river valleys were depopulated at the same time, creating a long-lasting “empty quarter” that no other peoples entered.

There was public engagement and assembly for culture-making, where individual and collective agency leads to divergence of choice.

There was refusal of what appear to be more efficient or productive options. Identity was more important.

There was explicit adoption of egalitarian structures and social support.

Showing prayer flags, Tuva.
Prayer flags, Tuva. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Cultures have lived alongside other differing cultures for thousands of years. They knew about other ways of living, and decided not to adopt. There was no perfect economic system of living waiting to be revealed.

There was long-distance travel, journeying and staying, leading to biological mixing inside stable cultures.

There was sudden abandonment of modes of living, when people decided they had become stuck and needed to do something different.

We know that fossil fuels will have to be almost entirely eliminated from all economies worldwide (excepting perhaps communities living at high latitudes that are dark and cold for long periods of the year), and thus the spread of adoption of renewable energy generation is central to preventing climate catastrophe. The overarching aim is to electrify everything, with a particular focus on wind, water, solar and battery storage.

Most countries are now committed to 100% renewables for their electricity supply at some time in the future. Some have made dramatic advances in implementation, others have been slow (see Table 1).

Many poorer countries are predicted to save money by these investments, as many spent up to half of national export earnings on importing oil, and now increasingly have the resources to invest in other social priorities. Countries highly dependent on the income from oil will find transitions hardest, even though some have large sovereign wealth funds. Qatar styles itself a “hydrocarbon-enabled economy.” It has the highest carbon emissions worldwide at 55 tonnes C per year per person, and to date has effectively zero contribution from renewables for its electricity supply.


Table 1. Proportion of domestic electricity supplied by renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass), 2022

Proportion of domestic electricity consumption supplied by renewables Countries
98%-100% Albania, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay, Uruguay
90%-95% Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Tajikistan
60%-80% Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden
40%-50% Ireland, Spain, UK
20% China, India, Japan, Morocco, USA
Less than 0.2% Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Note: World 28%; Europe 35%; Low-income countries 66%; Upper-income countries 30%. Some of these high percentages are in countries with low total energy consumption and low access to affordable electricity. They will need to consume more to escape poverty, and there will be a need to generate more renewable energy than today. Sources: International Energy Agency (2023) (www.iea.org); Our World in Data (www.ourworldindata.org).


Choices by governments matter. In the UK in 2023, the government chose to invest in a new nuclear plant (to produce 3 GW per year); in Denmark, the government has chosen wind power on two new energy islands in the North and Baltic Seas (total of 6 GW capacity). These islands will be the largest infrastructure in Denmark’s history, and will be generating electricity by 2030. Nuclear in the UK will take 10-15 years longer to be commissioned, costs will be twice as great, and there will still be a need to pay for costly nuclear waste disposal. Such nuclear developments will therefore be delivered too late to influence the meeting of 2050 net zero targets. China and South Korea are planning 1-6 GW of floating offshore wind parks for installation in 2025-2030.

Globally, the International Energy Agency believes strong growth in clean energy means the world can deliver fossil fuel emission cuts of 35% by 2030. The IEA also say we have the tools to go much faster, and that there is now a need for “a fierce urgency of the now.”

These advances towards 100% renewables are the start of a new dawn of everything. It is instructive to see which countries are taking the lead, and how cost benefits nationally will accrue.

Cultural connections for transformations

Showing plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach.
Plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach. Photograph © Jules Pretty

In my 2022 book, Sea Sagas of the North, I visited and wrote about 160 ports, villages and coastal places culturally facing inward to the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic (in Iceland, Norway, Finland, England, Scotland and the Faroe Isles). I talked to an 80-year-old famed skipper of the trawlers and drifters, and he said, “You know we were more tolerant and kind in the days of fishing, when we travelled to other places and came back with gifts and stories.” Fisher communities on the coast of the east of England felt greater closeness and affinity with people 1,100 miles away in Iceland and Norway than communities 10 miles inland.

The ecological collapse of fisheries led directly to social and cultural change on the coasts, and people lost their friendships with others across the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic.

For my 2014 book, The Edge of Extinction, I visited and stayed with place-based and indigenous cultures in Aotearoa, Australia, Tuva, Finland, Labrador, Louisiana and California. A Finish ice-fisherman friend stood up in the audience at a conference at the American Museum of Natural History, and demanded: “Where is the escape route for our culture and people to leave your modern world? Will you give us one?” The title’s play on words was intended to suggest it was modern societies and economies that were on the edge of extinction, not indigenous ones. The book should probably have been called ‘The Edge of Our Extinction’.

My 2023 book, The Low-Carbon Good Life, centres on the diverse ways of living and public engagement we need to create to solve the nature, climate and social inequality crises facing the planet. We will be needing divergence of practice, choice and behaviours rather than convergence.

Above all, we will need good stories that lead to agency and transformation.


Find out more

Jules Pretty’s new series The Climate Chronicles is posted at his website, where you can also find details of his books, including The Low-Carbon Good Life (2023) and Sea Sagas of the North (2022). Jules is part of the project team behind the Hope Tales events and chapbooks, with fellow ClimateCultures member Nicky Saunter. See Nicky’s post, Hope Tales — Stories for Change.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2022) is published by Penguin.

Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

A researcher and writer on environment and society, including 'The Climate Chronicles', and host of the Louder Than Words podcast and Brighter Futures films

Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.


3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes


My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.

Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature 

The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.

What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.

The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.

Akan proverb, translated in Michael Bakan’s ‘World Music: Traditions and Transformations 2nd Edition’ & featured in Hassaun Jones-Bey’s ‘A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene?’

My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:

Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.

Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.

To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.

Human Anthropocene: showing River and Path with environmental life cycle. An image by Hassaun Jones-Bey.
‘River and Path’ representation with environmental life cycle. Image: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.

In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.

Human anthropocene: 3 images showing a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - Berkeley, CA. Photographs by Hassau Jones-Bey.
3 images: hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park – Berkeley, CA. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”

I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.

Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.

Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.

Cycles of water, cycles of history

The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.

As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:

The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.

After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.

Seasons of change

When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.

Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature. 

In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.

This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.

The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the  Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.

3 images: lands, sea, air, light – northern California. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023

As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.

All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.


Find out more

You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.

The newspaper articles about Chavez Park that Hassaun mentions are: Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park (Berkleyside, 24/4/22); and New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park (Berkeley Daily Planet, 1/4/23).

The book from which the English translation of the Akan proverb is taken is Michael Bakan’s World Music: Traditions and Transformations (McGraw Hill – now available in a 4th edition, 2024).

Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”

Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”

ClimateCultures explores many aspects of the human Anthropocene and its more-than-human aspects in our members’ series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects and our new series with Martin Mahony and his students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences course: Museum of the Anthropocene.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

A retired engineer, science journalist and founder of Peace Jungle, which began as a musical storytelling project when online discourse associated 'apocalypse' with the impending twenty-first century.

Creative Whispers: Nature’s Power to Wellness

Sapphic and neuroqueer artist Indigo Sapphire Moon shares her experience of nature as a source of creative whispers, which blossom into ideas like her new poetry collection, and a space for us to exist outside our human story.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


The butterfly birthed from a pearl in the root of a sapphire tree. This tree blossomed small crystallised buds of sapphire and released fragrant bursts of amber musk and sandalwood. From there, those within close proximity of the sapphire tree grew still, patient and content. For the tree’s power lay within the butterfly’s own heart.

Nature feeds creativity

Nature doesn’t have a narrative. She is a reminder. Of our own power. When I embark upon nature’s pathways, I also have no narrative. No age, no gender, no sexuality, no race, no ethnicity, no history, no career, no education, no… National Insurance Number.

I simply am.

I can just be.

There lies our power.

Within this power, lies a bud of creativity that slowly transforms into blossoms of ideas. That’s how I feel when nature embraces me. There’s space to breathe. There’s contentment in the stillness of the water. There’s peace in witnessing the interactions between wildlife. In between these moments of tranquillity, I recognise the truth of my artistry. My creative voice speaks to me as it rides on a gust of wind and ripples of water.

The emptiness of quiet, paradoxically, gives birth to creative whispers which can grow louder if I hear an idea that piques my interest. These whispers come from my subconscious and this is opened up by nature. The encompassing presence of nature reveals sparks of ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced if I hadn’t been willing to listen.

Creative whispers in nature: showing a photograph of blossom by Indigo Moon
Blossom. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

Whatever our creative practice, nature has a limitless bounty of inspiration. From colours and shapes to textures and sounds, being in the presence of nature is undoubtedly one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had. When I return to the four walls of my bedroom, my mind feels lighter, refreshed and content.

I listen, tentatively, to those creative whispers. Then they become sparks.

Connected: a wild wellness

This in turn, impacts my mental, physical and spiritual wellness. The term ‘wellness’ means different things to each individual. Something I find promotes wellness within myself, such as meditation and nature walking, may not work for someone else.

And that’s wonderful.

It’s important we listen to our true selves and discover what promotes wellness on an individual level.

As I mentioned earlier, nature has no narrative. She opens up space for us to exist outside of our human story, to exist outside of our bodies. Our stories are a gift from the universe. A chance to exist and experience ourselves as spiritual beings without the human perspective. This allows me to tap into other perspectives of nature and connect with other spirits that share the Earth with us. Paradoxically, existing outside of my human body makes me feel more grounded than I ever have been. The path is clear and my roots are solid on the Earth. I’m no longer tethered to human thought or mind, which can sometimes feel like a damnation for me, personally. 

On a spiritual level, in those moments of calm and contentment, listening to birdsong or the gentle motion of water, I am reminded of my consciousness. The vibrational energy that lives at the heart of my spirit, and in the spirit of every living entity. We are connected.

Creative whispers in nature: showing a photograph of a Robin tilting her head, by Indigo Moon
Robin tilting her head. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

Inhale. Exhale.

I listen to the space in-between my breath.

There.

The hum of the universe.

When I reflect upon this realisation, of my being, I feel grounded, inspired, joyful and peaceful. My body responds. Every muscle is relaxed, my skin is warm in some areas, cold in others, and I breathe deeper.

Nature’s power aligns my mind, body and spirit. I feel well. Even if it only lasts for a few minutes, or a few hours. The feeling of wellness is divine. And for me, nature breathes that divinity, in and out, in silent hums.

From creative whispers to mindful self-publication

When I listened to those silent hums, I realised something.

Why wait for someone else to recognise my voice? My power?

I recognise it. That’s enough.

I had written a poetry collection and decided I was going to self-publish. I thought it would be harder than it was. But life is full of surprises. I found this accessible, easy to navigate, printing service (and I can’t remember the name of it, super helpful, I know). I uploaded my collection onto the website and they cleverly organised it into a printable book. They offered various options on sizes and binding. Once that was decided, they calculated the price based on how many copies I wanted. Again, I was surprised at how affordable it was. I paid less than thirty pounds for ten copies.

The only thing now was to find somewhere to sell them.

Luckily, I work for an amazing charity, Ideas Hub, which hosts a creative community space for artists to sell their work. They believed in me and my creative practice. And gave me a space on their bookshelf.

I know not everyone has the opportunity to find an organisation that allows artists to sell their work, especially if that work is self-published. However, don’t be discouraged. There are many digital platforms where you can self-publish your work. Research is key. Believe in your creative voice and recognise your unique spirit.

Creative whispers in nature: Showing a photograph of sunset on the River Crouch, by Indigo Moon
Sunset, River Crouch. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

You deserve to be heard.

To be seen.

Embrace your creative power.

Let the world see you glow and shimmer, like a butterfly from a sapphire tree.

The butterfly danced under the moonlit sky and left trails of shimmering sapphire dust in the air, churned into delicate shapes and patterns from the beat of her wings. She felt her own power now; unique and deep. The butterfly thanked the sapphire tree and flew higher and higher, into the heart of the moon.


Find out more

Asters in Virgo, Indigo’s new poetry collection, explores themes of the environment, nature, well-being and queer identity. It’s only available as a physical book, and if you would like to purchase a copy, please email Indigo at indigomoon229[at]gmail.com

You can find examples of creative whispers at work in more of Indigo’s poetry in her post Only Star (some of the poems there also appeared in the creative responses to our Environmental Keywords series). And in I Am Purpose, Indigo shares a short story reflecting on the presence of signals from within, evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis.

Indigo Sapphire Moon
Indigo Sapphire Moon
A sapphic and neuroqueer artist, writer, activist, curator, and founder of Creative Being, a platform and community using creativity to amplify positive change and marginalised voices.

A Queer Path to Wellbeing

Artist James Aldridge explores experiences of being ‘other’ as an ability to see beyond the boundaries of binary distinctions: offering us signs of a more inclusive queer nature, from a place that until now has been the edge.


2,670 words: estimated reading time = 10.5 minutes


When I was growing up I experienced my own queerness as not belonging, not being ‘normal’. When I came out as a young man I took the only label I felt was available to me and defined myself as gay, as other. Now at this time in my life I see my queerness as a gift, an ability to see beyond the boundaries between straight and gay, masculine and feminine, human and nature.

Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.

When I first came out as gay I tried to live in a city. I tried to find somewhere that I belonged by being with other gay people, but it wasn’t me. In the end we chose to live in a rural area, somewhere I feel I have more room to be myself, more opportunity to be with animals and plants and experience connection with the more than human world.

Queer Nature: showing 'The Ash Looks Back' by artist James Aldridge
The Ash Looks Back
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

I’ve taken a long time to get here, and it’s not been an easy journey. At the point of writing this piece I am 47, married to my husband, Dad to our little boy and living in a Wiltshire village. I am at the start of a relatively new path in learning about climate justice, triggered by discussions with fellow team members at Climate Museum UK. This writing is based on my own experiences and beliefs. I can’t talk for people of colour, or others disproportionately affected by the climate and ecological crises, but I can share the perspective offered by my Queerness.

Paying attention to queer nature

So, at this time of ecological and social collapse, of climate breakdown, with the falling away of old structures, what role do Queer people and perspectives have to play?

“We need guides to help us move through this liminality (and) we have a right to bring our gifts to the world.”

For the Wild podcast: Queer Nature

My practice as an artist who works with people and places focuses on enabling a sense of identity to emerge through embodied experience of, and artful response to, my/your immediate environment. The Queer Nature podcast talks about the skills and awareness that Queer people have developed as a result of the threat of violence, and the consequent need for hyper-awareness of and sensitivity to our environment. This ability to pay close attention to our sensory experiences, and the possibility of translating that into a practice of paying attention to non-human voices, is a by-product of the trauma that we have experienced as a community.

Queer Nature: showing 'Walking Bundle (Wrestler)' by artist James Aldridge
Walking Bundle (Wrestler)
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

As Queer people have experienced the trauma of being disconnected from and endangered by mainstream society, so Western society as a whole has experienced the trauma of disconnection from what we have come to call Nature. These binary distinctions divide and separate us through words and perceptions in a way that doesn’t fit the underlying reality. There is no human/nature split, apart from in our thoughts. Colonialism has taught us that we can act independently of Nature, that we are both separate and in control, but as anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us “We can’t do anything at all, can’t be us, without so many other species.”

Being well with change and uncertainty

The Queer Nature podcast describes Queerness “as a becoming… that arises from destabilisation”. My experiences of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.

My arts practice, and the time that I have spent exploring and defining my identity through interaction with non-human beings, has provided me with a means of becoming-with the land. As my good friend the artist Kathy Mead-Skerritt reminds me, it is about “a realisation of our indivisibility”.

Colonisation has taught us that Nature is other, Blackness is other, Queerness is other. Inclusion may invite us in to give us a place at the table sometimes, a place within the city walls, but I value my access to the rich wild life beyond those walls, and the opportunity to live side-by-side with non-human others. Talk of collapse is scary, the ‘end of normal’ can be scary too, but for those of us that have lived outside of normal for much of our lives there is a certain familiarity to it.

“The ecological view to come… is a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definitive centre or edge. The ecological thought is intrinsically Queer.”

— Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought

Queer Nature: showing a film still from Water Body, by artist James Aldridge
Water Body (film still)
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

When I was younger I worked to support the development of a sustainable future. More recently I have shifted towards learning to be well with change and uncertainty. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or have given up, but that I believe we need to be more humble, more outward-facing, and that art can help us with that. Art that is grounded in listening and witnessing, that allows us to slow down, open up and accept our place within vast interconnected systems, can change our way of seeing the world, even if only for a moment. As Nora Bateson writes, through the experience of making art “…we are pulled from our illusion that we can watch life from our safe place at the window. We are participants in the process.”

We can use art to unpick inherited ways of thinking and perceiving, that have led us to act without empathy for others, or awareness of our place within wider systems. As Jonathan Rowson has written, it is this lack of awareness that is the ultimate cause of the crises that we find ourselves in, “Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive, or to know what we know.”

If we want to move on from what Donna Haraway has called the Capitalocene, to the Cthulucene, from the end of one world to the beginning of another, then we need to develop a culture that values ‘multi-species stories and practices’, or what Haraway calls sympoiesis (making with) rather than autopoiesis (self making). Harraway chooses Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene to make clear that it is the system that is at fault, not us as a species. As Queer Nature describe it in the For the Wild podcast, the word Anthropocene relies on a “colonial idea that all humans are inherently bad rather seeing who has had power and enacted ecocide.”

Walking with others

When I first started out on a journey to explore what Queering and Queerness meant to me as an artist, it was as research for a proposal that I was writing. I’m yet to hear if my proposal was successful, but what I have ended up with is a language with which to make sense of my practice, and the world in which I find myself.

As some of us champion a move towards valuing difference, redistributing power and the right for people to live beyond binaries, others are responding with fear to the end of familiar ways of living, and the loss of colonial power. They react by building walls and promoting forms of politics that widen divisions. In such times it can seem too small an action to walk, talk and make, but that is my form of activism, researching how to be well with change by ‘walking with’ others.

Queer Nature: showing 'Decay is the Deep Heart of Spring' by artist James Aldridge
Decay is the Deep Dark Heart of Spring
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

“Walking-with is a deliberate strategy of unlearning, unsettling and queering how walking methods are framed and used…”

— Walking Lab, Why Walking the Common is More Than a Walk In The Park

What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.

“Since colonisation is a two-way street, working on the colonised and those who stand to benefit… decolonisation, breaking apart the myths and binaries of civilisation will benefit everyone, including… the land and non-human animals.”

— Jesus Radicals, A Holy Queering

We need to work together to support each other through these challenging times, and to develop ways of thinking, seeing and being that are based on relationship. We need to (Re)wild ourselves and the land through letting go of pre-conceived ideas of what is normal or right and pay attention to what the land itself has to teach us. (I put the Re of Rewilding in brackets because I’m not sure that Rewilding isn’t itself based on the idea of a return to a romantic past that never existed. Wilding for now feels less weighed down with baggage.)

‘Ecological restoration…should no longer be the anthropocentric revival of a pastoral utopia that may have been.’

— Rachel Weaver, About Place Journal

showing 'Listening' by artist James Aldridge
Listening
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

Part of this journey that I am on is about growing more comfortable with not knowing where I’m going. I am learning that there is no neat and tidy endpoint at which everything is picked apart and understood. That the world isn’t ‘out there’ to be saved, it is in us and we in it. And that nothing is fixed, because everything is connected, and every action, however small, can and does have an effect.

At one point I lost all hope of a future, as my knowledge of the climate crisis increased things looked more and more bleak, and I grieved for the future that my family had lost. Now I feel a sense of reassurance that being in the here and now, and acting from a position of being fully myself, as part of a supportive system, is the best and perhaps the only way that I can do good in the world.


Find out more

As a freelance artist, James works with a range of organisations, including Climate Museum UK which was created by fellow ClimateCultures member Bridget McKenzie as a mobile and digital museum creatively stirring and collecting responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Climate Museum UK produces and collects creative activities, games, artworks and books, and uses these in events to engage people.

For The Wild — an anthology of the Anthropocene focused on land-based protection, co-liberation and intersectional storytelling rooted in a paradigm shift from human supremacy towards deep ecology — includes an extensive podcast series. The episode Queer Nature on Reclaiming Wild Safe Space features Pinar and So, founders of Queer Nature, an education and ancestral skills programme which recognises that “many people, including LGBTQ2+ people, have for various reasons not had easy cultural access to outdoors pursuits, and envisions and implements ecological literacy and wilderness self-reliance skills as vital and often overlooked parts of the healing and wholing of populations who have been silenced, marginalized, and even represented as ‘unnatural.'”

In The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2012), Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, nor does ‘Nature’ exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realising this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought. ‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene is a profile of Morton by Alex Blasdel in The Guardian (15/6/17).

Jonathan Rowson’s post discussing our inability to see how we see, How to think about the meta-crisis without getting too excited, is published at Medium (14/2/20).

Why Walking the Common is more than a Walk in the Park by Nike Romano, Veronica Mitchell & Vivienne Bozalek is published in a special issue of Journal of Public Pedagogies (Number 4, 2019), guest-edited by WalkingLab, an international research project with a goal to create a collaborative network and partnership between artists, arts organisations, activists, scholars and educators. 

A Holy Queering: Rewilding Civilized Sexualities (27/4/11) is part of a series for the Jesus Radicals collaborative site, which focuses on “undoing oppressions from a framework of anarchist politics and liberative Christianity”, explaining anarchist stances on a range of issues: “And, since our place within creation is largely ignored within Christian theology and classical anarchist politics, we explore our relationship with the environment, as well as human relationships with non-human animals.”

You can read Donna Haraway’s 2015 paper Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin, online at the Environmental Humanities journal.

Rachel Weaver’s article, Soundscape Ecology and Uncivilized Philosophy in the Quarry, is published in About Place Journal (May 2018).

Finally, Randall Amster has published a recent essay in The Ecologist (3/2/20). Beyond the Anthropocene includes a very brief account of some of the alternatives suggested for the Anthropocene label, in a wider discussion of what this new age means for us and what our legacy might be and the agency with which we can shape that. “What might follow? The abject urgency of an eponymous Anthropocene makes us all futurists, practically and poetically, and suggests that the promulgation of any human future isn’t merely a spectator sport. … Dreamers and pragmatists alike can unite in the view that another world, a just future with bold vision, is both desired and required.”

***

Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, adds

This is the fourth post in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of expressing something of the more-than-human in the form of a signal for humanity. James himself says of this piece that “‘Signals from the Edge’ was my starting point but perhaps it has evolved into something slightly different. I’m sending a signal from where I find myself, which has up to now been at the edge.”

Unlike our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, which has a fairly fixed shape, Signals from the Edge develops as it grows. Each contribution stimulates the series to be more than it was up to that point. The edge shifts in shape and in scope and in what a signal might consist of, what it shows of us. Previous offerings have been a flash fiction, an essay/video, a short story — each with a separate reflective piece to accompany it. Here, they are joined by James’s personal essay, with his visual art embedded.

Future pieces will take the form further still — and notions of ‘signal’ and of ‘edge’. In creating the idea for this series, I speculated whether a signal might be a message from elsewhere — whether one meant for our species or one intended for another kind entirely, and which we overhear by chance. Or it might be an artefact of some other consciousness, or an abstraction of our material world. Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense amidst the confusion of human being. What would be your signal, and what edge might it speak from?

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...

Writing on Water

A still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeuneArtist Hanien Conradie discusses a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with Devon’s River Dart and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge. Work that seeks more reciprocal relationships with the natural world.


2,450 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes + 3 minutes video


Introduction

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe: I met Hanien Conradie when she gave a presentation at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium at Dartington Hall in Devon, in June 2018. Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, recounted the unique relationship she had built with the clay of the Hartebees River in Worcester, South Africa: “the same clay my mother played with as a child.” Her talk also featured a premiere of a film made with fellow artist, Margaret LeJeune, showing Hanien’s performance in the Dart, the local river at Dartington, during both artists’ residencies there just before Liquidscapes.

This post, which begins with that film, Dart, is based on an email conversation we had in September 2019, after Hanien had been able to share the film following its premiere in South Africa.

Dart – a film by Hanien Conradie and Margaret LeJeune from Hanien Conradie on Vimeo.

A place of peace and healing

Your film has three phases, for me: the reading of Eugene Marais’s poem Diep Rivier in the original Afrikaans; the rereading of it in English; and the silence in between. For an English-only viewer, the unknowability of the original reading is powerful, and forces me to hear the striking beauty of the sound of the words alone, in your voice. What for you is the value of the silence between the two languages?

The performance in the river began as I wrote the Afrikaans version of the poem onto the river’s surface. It was a way to introduce my ancestry and me to the river. What happened in that moment was that I became very emotional.

Firstly, I had just come from a severe drought in Cape Town where we had a daily ration of 50 litres of water. Being in such an expanse of water after the scarcity was an overwhelming relief.

Secondly, I had a painful ancestral history with England. The British Empire and Afrikaners fought each other between 1899 and 1902 during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers fought a guerrilla war and the men gathered their supplies from Afrikaner homesteads and farms. As part of what was referred to as the ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the British army burnt down Afrikaner farms, killed their livestock and put the surviving women and children in concentration camps. About 30,000 Afrikaners died of exposure, starvation and disease in these camps. Most of the dead were children. As a child born about 70 years later, I heard many of the elderly people speaking in bitter ways about the British. The rift between English and Afrikaner South Africans could still be felt as children from both cultures harassed each other with hate speech during my years of schooling.

I studied in English, had made many English friends and my life partner is British. I believed that this history was not really a part of my personal pain anymore. However when I entered this English river and spoke this very old Afrikaans poem (written about 10 years after the war), I was surprised to find myself sobbing. In the water of this dark river pain older than my life years surfaced and came to a place of peace; the river and I let all the hatred flow to the ocean and I allowed love to be born again.

I did not plan the silence between the two languages consciously, but in hindsight I believe it communicates a transformation that happened within me and hopefully is still rippling out into the world I live in. The silence together with the rippling effect that I, a mere speck, have on the environment, speaks volumes about the power of one individual to heal communal pain.

Joyful dance with the river

The film itself, of course, is continuous and, superficially, seems unchanged across the three different phases. But the drone pulls out further overhead, and then comes back in, and your movements on the water — the drawing on its surface — change also. Our view of you — in close up in the water and then in long shot with the water and then closing in again — is always literally an overview, from a different plane (place) to your own experience in and with the water. That’s only possible through collaboration with another artist. Was that viewpoint, that collaboration, always intended for your work here? Or did it emerge from a process of working with the river beforehand? 

You are quite right to point out that the experience of the viewer and my experience in the river is substantially different. That is why this film is a full collaboration between the American artist, Margaret LeJeune, and myself. She managed to capture the poetry of the moment in a meaningful way; which is an artwork and skill in itself.

After I performed the ritual of writing the poem in the water I felt light and elated, and in a powerful but prayerful mode. I started beating and creating circles on the surface of the water. I lost my sense of self in this joyful dance with the river. Thus I failed to notice Margaret, who was quietly observing me from the river’s bank. As I emerged from the river she requested to film me with her drone. So, the next day we came back to the river and I re-enacted my ritual.

A still from the film, 'Dart', shwoing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The beauty of our collaboration was there was very little planning, discussion or editing to this documentation. We had a subtle attunement to each other that enabled the transmission of the feeling of the ritual to the viewer. Margaret and I previously discussed our overwhelming nostalgia toward the European natural world. We both come from places that were colonised by our European ancestors. I sensed that we both struggle with feelings of displacement, colonial guilt and a search for belonging. It was Margaret who saw something that I as the performer couldn’t see: the far-reaching ripples I was creating. It was through her poetic perspective that the documentation of the performance obtained its power.

A loss of place

You originally showed the film at the Liquidscapes symposium very soon after making it, and your talk there focused on an experience revisiting a river and farm with your mother, taking her back to her childhood home. Your experiences of that river up to then were through her memories, which ‘became mythological stories’, but her return to the farm and the river with you proved to be depressing. It seems to have been an experience of erasure — of the life of the land and of the river, and even of the water’s sound that had been so strong in your mother’s experience and memory. Maybe even of memory itself, as something pure. It seems that the land’s natural state — and then its later much-altered state, of your mother’s experience — was ephemeral, whereas in your film it is your signature on the river, your drawing in it, which is ephemeral, although deep.

My talk at Liquidscapes told the story of the damaged South African river from the perspective of a person of a hybridised European culture (Afrikaans culture). I weave a tale out of observations in the current natural world and past memories in an attempt to show the inextricable connection between nature and culture; how nature reflects culture and how a dislocated culture can create a loss of place.

The nationalist Afrikaner culture of my mother’s childhood had the reputation that it represented people of the soil; ‘boere’ (farmers) who loved nature as pastoralists. On closer inspection however, I realised that these memories of my mother’s were created within a context where the European culture and its crops were imposed onto the indigenous environment. This lack of understanding of the functioning of indigenous natural ecosystems has resulted in tremendous ecological damage and loss of indigenous fauna, flora, cultural knowledge systems and the loss of the river that once roared through the land. Like the sound of the river, my mother’s childhood culture has disappeared.

Today Afrikaner culture is in a process of mutation to an unknown end. The question I sit with is how do I enable restoration and healing to these damaged places? How do I find another way to relate to the natural world that is reciprocal; that understands human beings as an aspect of this living community of beings? 

My ritual in the River Dart was an attempt to find an answer for this new way of relating. The writer of the poem, Eugene Marais, had a very unique way of relating to the natural world. As a fellow Afrikaner, I call on his wisdom through reciting his words.

So yes, there is something ephemeral in my experiences with both of these rivers. And perhaps that is invoked by the nature of rivers as signifiers of the passing of time. Even though my ‘drawings’ on the surface of the river are ephemeral, their impact reverberates through my life as I actively work on transforming my personal culture to meet the natural world in a very different way to my ancestors. There is thus something that is infinitely rippling out from these ephemeral experiences that I hope will lead to transformation.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The response of the natural world

You wrote in your blog post retelling your encounter with the Breede River, “My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss.” There you did this by meeting with local people and experts who could help you see what the natural and indigenous state of the river might have been, before European settlement. Working later on the Dart, was there also a feeling of a landscape of loss? I wonder how that place seemed to you as a new visitor and as you immersed yourself in it and in the work?

In my work with places where loss and damage is so severe that nothing seems to remain that holds the ancient knowledge of the place, I try work with the elements that are present such as the earth of the dry river or in this case the water of the river. When I encountered the River Dart, I was initially completely seduced by the expanse of water because it was lacking in the place I came from. As I got to know it better and read its history I realised that it is suffering its own losses and damage. If we as humans can start seeing bodies of water as entities with their own life and rights, I think these problems can be solved.

Similarly to my experience with the clay of the dry river, I found through relating to the River Dart, a great generosity coming from the natural world. I would have thought that like humans, the natural world would shut itself down and stop communicating with those who harm it. It has however been my experience that by earnestly and as honestly as possible communicating with natural entities such as rivers, I have gained much insight, humility and healing.

In your account of working with the Breede and its clay, you found it did not behave as you expected. Was this also true in the Dart? 

I remember when I first entered the River Dart I sat quietly in the water looking out over the landscape and I listened attentively to ‘hear’ the river speak. After being still for a substantial time, the sceptic in me said ‘this river is not going to relate to you, you are wasting your time.’ Discouraged, I turned my gaze down to my body that was half-submerged in the water. I noticed that the silt of the river had settled like dust on my skin, tracing every hair and the curve of my body; I noticed that the little minnows were nibbling the skin of my feet. I was reminded again, that we are inextricably part of nature; that the separatist way we think about the natural world is what causes our incapacity to ‘hear’.

In terms of my performance, the idea was to capture the white foam lines made through ‘drawing’ with sticks on the surface of the dark black water. It was only because we had the overhead perspective of the drone that we could see the immense impact of my ‘drawings’ as they rippled out into a sphere far greater than the speck that was my body. Again, I was surprised with the far more complex outcome of my simple initial intention. Similarly to the experience with the river clay, I offered some of my energy and the natural world responded with a depth of wisdom I couldn’t have fathomed on my own.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
Natural world – a still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

Find out more

Dart, the film Hanien and Margaret LeJeune created in the River Dart, was first shown at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in June 2018, following their residencies with the River Dart for The Ephemeral River, a Global Nomadic Art Project sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Art and The Natural World (CCANW) and Science Walden / UNIST. The film was then shown as part of Raaswater (‘Raging Waters’), Hanien’s exhibition at Circa Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2019.

You can read a precis of Hanien’s paper to the Liquidscapes symposium at her blog post The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River. Here, she describes her work in the clay of the Breede River Valley following her visit to ‘Raaswater’ there with her mother, and the inspiration she takes from the writing of deep ecologist and ecophilosopher Arne Naess on ideas of place.

You can also explore the work of American artist Margaret LeJeune, including Evidence of the Dart, a selection of images Margaret created during her own residency at The Ephemeral River. “Our goal was to create work inspired by notions of ephemerality and the landscape of the River Dart.”

Eugène Nielen Marais (1871-36) was an innovative Afrikaans writer who had studied medicine and law and later investigated nature in the Waterberg area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. You can explore some of his poetry in Afrikaans (and some translations into English) at Poem Hunter.

Liquidscapes, a book of essays, poetry and images reflecting the Liquidscapes international symposium at Dartington Hall in June 2018 is published by art.earth, edited by Richard Povall. The book includes Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River.

Hanien Conradie
Hanien Conradie
A fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape.