Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature

Ecopoet Helen Moore shares the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in a world that’s become unconscious of humanity’s interdependence with all beings through the web of life.


1,900 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Recently I’ve begun to contemplate and explain what I mean by ‘wild writing’, which is such a fundamental part of my ecopoetic practice. I want to share how I go about it and how it keeps me well and resilient to the deep challenges of staying conscious in a world that is consistently leading humans to remain unconscious. In reflecting on my many years practising it, I’ve come to see how it helps me to get in touch with what I call my ‘humanimal’ nature — the embodied awareness that recognises my interdependence with all beings through the web of life. And ultimately puts me in touch with the Divine within myself and all beings.

A subtle imprint

Showing Wild Garlic by Helen Moore: inspiring wild writing
Wild Garlic
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

Not all ecopoetry is wild writing, and it can of course also be expressed in prose. But the following piece is inspired by foraging for one of my favourite foods, Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons. It also expresses the phenomenon that I’ve come to name ‘green drift’, which is the subtle imprint that time in green spaces — whether foraging, gardening, walking or meditating — can endow us with.

Green Drift

“There is no force in the world but love.” – Rilke

Crawling into bed like a peasant,
with mud-grained feet, soil under the nails
of my toes – but too tired to care –
the heaviness of the day’s exertions draws

my body downward – each muscle and bone
finding its bliss – and I close my eyes
on a green panorama, shades of every
nuance, the contours of leaves in high

definition. A film encoded on the visual cortex,
I observe again those lanceolate shapes, the forage silk
which slipped between our fingers and thumbs
(still redolent with that Ramson scent),

the mounding herbage that we plucked, 
backs bent as in a Van Gogh study.
Behind my eyelids, vernal waves rise and fall,
hymn of this community to which my senses flock –

ancient rite of magnetic birds, Dionysus riding me,
greens rushing on the inside of my eyelids, 
mosaics of foliage, fingers ablaze with Nettle stings,
soles still alive to the narrow woodland path,

its vertebrae of roots, pad of compressed earth.
High on Spring, I’m a biophile 
and incurable; nor would I care for any cure –
would only be a node in Great Mother’s body

where, drifting into the canopy of sleep, I see foliar veins 
close-up – illumined as if by angels – 
feel the breathing of stomata. Then, like a drunken Bee,
I surrender to this divine inebriation.

From Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, Helen Moore (Shearsman Books, 2012).

Helen adds: "Names of more-than-human beings are capitalised to raise their status from the margins to which industrialised culture has relegated them."

The wild is everywhere

That erotic/ecstatic possession by wild Nature and the resulting dissolution of the ego, as I connect with my higher Self, which is an expression of the Divine, is the ultimate state to which my wild writing practice can bring me. In this state I feel in every cell of my body that I too am wild Nature, and that I’m powerful beyond measure. That I too can co-create with all life.

Given that this practice emerges from the wilder aspects of my consciousness, how do I go about accessing this extraordinary state of mind? Fundamentally it requires carving out regular space in my schedule to get away from the digital/virtual world. To take solo time in Nature. To nourish body/mind/spirit and deepen my connection with other-than-human Nature from which inspiration and creativity flow. I don’t necessarily need to seek out places that might typically be defined as ‘wild’. The wild is everywhere, occurs even in our local park/garden/school playing fields/cracks in the pavement.

Nevertheless, as Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth, the ordinary, conditioned mind is more comfortable in green spaces such as a landscaped park “because it has been planned through thought”. Whereas “in the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.” Here we can no longer differentiate between “life (good) and death (bad) … since everywhere new life grows out of rotting and decaying matter.” Stilling the mind, we can then start to perceive “sacredness, a hidden order in which everything has its perfect place, and our own non-separation from this.”

Showing Great Mullein, by Helen Moore - co-creation and wild writing
Great Mullein
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

My wild writing practice is also about holding an intention: what does life want to show me today? In approaching it this way, I find that I tend to experience magical encounters that lift my spirits, bring joy, inspire. Going out on a wild writing adventure, I find it’s important to see the time I give it as ‘sacred’. It’s a period of time, two, three, four hours perhaps, for nurturing soul and the ensouled world. Ideally, I will cross a threshold (which might be a garden or park gate, a path to a beach or forest) in order to mark the transition into it. And having entered into this space, I will avoid conversations with other humans and open up my senses to the other-than-human world.

I never start with writing, just begin by walking, slowing my pace, letting any mental chatter subside. I let my body soften, my senses receive information such as the breeze on my skin, scents in the air, taste, sounds near and far, and visual aspects such as colours, shapes, patterns. At the same time, I watch what is at the edge of my consciousness, breathing it in and out, honouring any uncomfortable feelings, breathing them in and out. I avoid getting attached to any of those thoughts, or letting myself build them into narratives, and instead keep returning my attention to the present moment.

I also practise the Five Ways of Knowing, which Bill Plotkin advocates in Soulcraft. These are sensing (with all five senses), feeling, intuiting, imagining and thinking. Valuing these additional ways of knowing helps to balance out the dominant rational mind and allows me to become more receptive to the multiple wild voices and natural sign languages that are usually so ignored in our culture.

And I connect with the elements, the weather, darkness/light, rhythms of growth, abundance and decay, and notice what these may mirror within. Observing dead wood riddled with insect holes and fungus, I may see what needs to fall away from my life, what needs to be composted, as I deepen my understanding of impermanence.

Wild writing & co-creative nature

Through these acts of paying close attention, and then finding language, imagery and form to reflect my experiences, I’m engaging in wild writing. However, that process of finding language is often tentative, provisional. My experiences may be difficult to communicate, and so at first I’m simply ‘splurging’, forgetting grammar, spelling, punctuation. Just getting words down in my notebook. Sometimes the seed of a poem or story is found later in just a few words of that splurge, a phrase that has a certain ‘energy’ that I want to explore further.

Wild writing fundamentally requires me to practise non-judgement — at least in the initial phase, when I allow everything in. Later I can practise the discernment of the editorial eye, but initially I try to be open to including all of my experience, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. To keep including in my awareness the co-creative aspect of what I’m doing.

In our culture we’re conditioned to think of the act of creation as happening almost in a vacuum. We’ve come to think of the creative ‘genius’ working in isolation — traditionally a white, male figure, possibly inspired by a female muse. However, everything happens as a co-creation in Nature. A tree does not grow on its own, but responds to light, soil, water, weather, insects. It interacts with other trees through mycorrhizal relationships. Trees are also home to birds, creatures, insects, all of whom may have a symbiotic relationship with the tree. A bird might find its home in the tree’s branches, eat its berries, benefitting from this food source, and then pooping out the seeds, thereby disseminating them.

Showing Clouded Yellow, by Helen Moore
Clouded Yellow
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

This shows that co-creation is at the heart of all experience. All beings are infinitely connected through the web of life, the ecosystems and communities we inhabit. Our co-creation as humans is with other writers and teachers who inspire us, and with the other-than-human as an interspecies experience. It may also involve consciously working with the Universe, the Divine, Spirit, Oneness, God, Allah — however we may call it.

This co-creation can come about through inspiration, and of course the word ‘inspire’ connects us with the breath, the air we share with all beings. It is the insights, ideas, sudden intuitions which we ‘breathe in’. And which we then ‘breathe into’ others when we inspire them.

In my experience, regularly practising wild writing helps me to remain more attuned to my wild self, even when I return to the more domesticated realm of home, cafes, library, bars, shops. Steadily becoming more capable of expressing this essential aspect of myself seems to build my resilience to face the challenges of being human in the 21st century, to embrace the crises we face as opportunities for greater healing and positive transformation of our world. It also helps me to understand that I’m never alone — even if I’m experiencing social isolation, wild beings are wonderful companions and teachers.

Helen Moore at Timber Festival, July 2021
Photograph: Mark Simmons © 2021

Find out more

Helen’s post is based on a Zoom talk she gave recently to Bristol Climate Writers, an active group that writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry about climate change and the environment, and which includes many other ClimateCultures members. You can find out more about the group’s work through two posts BCW members wrote for ClimateCultures: Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’, and Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change.

Helen’s collection Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (2012), is published by Shearsman BooksAnd ECOZOA (2015), which is published by Permanent Publications, has been acclaimed by Australian poet John Kinsella, as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics”. On Helen’s website, via her ClimateCultures profile, you can listen to readings of her poem Findhorn Bay, Waves of Flow & Flight, watch her poetry films, explore her collections, and find out about her online Wild Ways to Writing mentoring programme and her current project collaborating on a cross arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.

Helen is one of the judges for Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, a new writing competition from XR Wordsmiths, a collective of writers deeply concerned with the climate and ecological emergency facing us all and part of Extinction Rebellion. The competition aims “to use our collective imagination as a tool against the climate and ecological emergency. Imagination unlocks the impossible and releases it into the realm of ‘possible’.” It is open now until 14th September 2021 — and our next ClimateCultures blog post will explore the thinking behind it from the perspective of one of our newest members, also a member of XR Wordsmiths.

Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth (2009) is published by Penguin.

Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (2003) is published by New World Library

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.
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Bringing It All Back Home

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


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gentle force

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Small pieces of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebellion for the natural world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

Conversations with Work That Connects

Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.


2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos


The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.

I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.

As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.

I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.

“Galvanising the faithful”

‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.

Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’

I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.

Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig
Photograph: Reed Ingram Weir © 2013

There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.

When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.

“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”

As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.

Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:

Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.

Breath[e]LESS – a blend of spoken word, soundscape, projection and dance music on environmental themes that Tessa Gordzjieko collaborated on.

“You learn as much as you teach”

We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.

As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.

The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul)
Photograph: Matt Law © 2020

Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.

Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:

“Ecology begins on your doorstep”

Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.

I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.

Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:

Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:

“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”

Showing the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.

“Our new brief”

So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.

Orlando after Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Andrea Carr © 2019

Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:

Creativity – “cultivating curiosity”
Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together”
Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity”
Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”

She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.

Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.

Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’

One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?

I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.

Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!


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Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist and activist in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit sector and combines arts and environmentalism.
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You can read about Julia’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play in her post Directing The Children.

Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!

Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.

Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.

Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
   

Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.

Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.

As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and  These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.

Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. 

The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty. 

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016) Donna Harraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

Joanna Macy is the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, a framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically. 

The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University. 

Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action. 

“Attending to the world’s extraordinary surprise”

Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis — a book urging the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.


700 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.

Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818
Learning to Die. Book cover by William Miller (human skull, engraving, 1818 in ‘Engravings of the Skeleton of the Human Body’ by John Gordon).

The mind of the wild

In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.

The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”

Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.

Learning to die

In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:

To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.

Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:

Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.

The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!

Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it. 


Find out more 

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky is published by University of Regina Press, Canada (2018).

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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In the Path of Its Beam

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Annie Dillard’s 1974 wonder-filled book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A classic, it nonetheless resists easy classification and explores, in equal measure, horror and beauty in nature: fixing both with Dillard’s hallmark unblinking stare.


2,900 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


A copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek goes to Veronica Sekules for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is — was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account — a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley — the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting — how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' cover
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Tinker creek: two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later — looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” — Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it around for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the schoolyard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror — and both in abundance — is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow — “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” — is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Artist: Anna Maria Johnson
Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”


Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. In her illustrated essay, A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, she offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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