Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.


2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 6 minutes video 


This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.

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For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods. 


I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.

It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.

My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.


And socially engaged art practice?

This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.

Reimagining place

So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.

Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.

A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.

An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school. 

machairart film short from Laura Donkers on Vimeo.

As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors. 

Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.

This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.

The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.

Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.

My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.

Making space for climate conversations 

I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.

Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.

Looking beyond the west   

My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.

I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence. 

To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.

This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts. 


Find out more

The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices.

The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development.

Laura Donkers
Laura Donkers
An artist-researcher who develops interpretive and participatory positions within the community, contributes to eco-social actions, and creates interactive artworks to disseminate the community's embodied knowledge.
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Reading Nature’s Archives in the Library of Ice

The Library of Ice by Nancy CampbellWriter Sally Moss reviews Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate. Rich in detail (microscope and dictionary, as much as library) its landscapes, eras, expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses pile up like brash ice.

1,460 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice documents both the realm of ice and humanity’s multifaceted relationship with it.

It was while working for a book and manuscript dealer in London that Campbell came to her decision to tour the ice-related destinations of the world:

“The more archives I catalogued, the more concerned I became about their future readers. Humans had libraries to preserve their fragile records, but the gloomy news headlines put our own survival as a species — and that of the wider world — in doubt.”

A contact of Campbell’s suggested she undertake a residency to concentrate on her own work, and she was persuaded:

“I would find out how other artists were recording this temporal world, and immerse myself in archives that nature itself had devised.”

This direct nature scholarship, and the latent fragility of the ecosystems that support us, are the themes that underpin The Library of Ice’s wandering course. We are presented with manifold landscapes, eras, hubris-driven expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses, piling up like brash ice.

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
The Library of Ice

The poetry of precision 

The book is rich in meticulous detail — it’s a microscope and a dictionary, as much as a library. Less familiar words bloom throughout (‘dioptre’, ‘firn’, ‘philtrum’), and it does well to veer only occasionally towards the abstruse. For all the density of scholarship, it’s a readable account, and highly poetic in places.

Vivid imagery is conjured, whether it’s through Campbell’s words (“The [curling] stone makes me think of a child potentate: everyone’s eyes are on it, and its apparently independent movement is cleverly controlled”) or the words of others (Arctic explorer William McKinley: “As I turned round to face the ship, old Karluk seemed to be doing her best to outdo nature. Her deck covering of snow shimmered like tinsel. Every rope and spar was magnified by a fluffy coating of frosted rime”).

Disko Bay. Photograph by Nancy Campbell.
Disko Bay,
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2016

The book also internally debates narrative approaches. An example: Robert Boyle was one of the founders of modern chemistry and devoted much of his energy to “the Phaenomena of Cold”. He said of his sources, “to get to the useful matter [the reader] must labour through ‘melancholy Accounts of storms and distresses, and Ice, and Bears, and Foxes'”. Campbell’s response is to smile and admit “My own journals are not free of such accounts”.

But when reading Boyle’s own words I find his personal fascination with his subject far more engaging than his results. And I am anchored and reassured when Campbell shares her rawest perceptions with us. What can be more important for humanity’s prospects right now, I wonder, than examining our subjective responses until we become, one by one, a great deal more self-aware and adaptable?

Whispers of catastrophe 

When it comes to raising the climate alarm, the book is relatively measured: mere whispers of catastrophe punctuate the chapters. But while it may be a myth that a whisper can start an avalanche, several in concert can certainly trigger disquiet.

Campbell reflects in the opening pages that

“When the last of the ice has melted … the records of the past will be the least of our concerns.”

And the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, we hear, has predicted that snow cover will disappear from the Alps by 2100, leaving the unprotected glaciers to melt quickly.

In a changing climate, crop and animal husbandry have to change too:

“The flood becomes critical. The waters rise too quickly for [Icelandic] farmers to rescue their sheep. This year, the flock might have been safer up in the hills.”

The Icelandic landscape is regularly used for filming, often because it has the look of an alien planet; Campbell notes that “As the Earth changes, this rocky landscape may hint at humanity’s future, as well as its past”. 

And Haukur, one of Campbell’s Icelandic glacier guides, comments that

“Sea-level rise doesn’t worry me so much … I’m more concerned what happens with the tectonic plates. They are going to rise up when the ice melts.”

Icebergs Upernavik. Photograph by Nancy Campbell
Icebergs Upernavik,
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2012

Against this background, I began to think about the reading process itself, about the pace of life. I read The Library of Ice in snatched quarter-hours on commutes and in queues; reading a book such as this can take time that isn’t always easy to find, or justify, in a frenetic age. There’s the daily grind, which grinds ever harder under neoliberalism, and the fiery panic the climate emergency can induce.

But if a profound book can change a reader’s internal landscape in a matter of days or weeks, then I guess it works fast enough even for 2018. This one slows us down until we can see through the lens of geological time, see in academic detail what is happening to us, and begin to accept and process it. Rapid, society-wide change is certainly needed, but the personal change it rests on requires us to relearn patience.

Talking of the neoliberal grind: we discover that to complete this research and this book, Campbell needed not only the support of a variety of funds and institutions but also a knack for under-consumption of the essentials:

“… I had to live as frugally as I could, which meant moving between house-sits. Sometimes I sofa-surfed for a few nights, or spent the night on a train concourse, or holed up in an airport or bus station toilet cubicle, leaning against the door, ignoring the lock when it was rattled by the cleaner early in the morning.”

It seems that inventorying ecosystems is not yet as lucrative as despoiling them still is. These insights add poignancy to Campbell’s disclosure of her feelings when seeking a base in Greenland for one leg of the journey: “I needed someone who would invite me, tell me I was welcome.” 

A possibility of movement? 

Through Campbell’s reflections, we encounter a range of perspectives across times and places.

“I understand what has been troubling me about [Edmund A.] Petersen’s paintings: they represent a romantic depiction of the Arctic, from a more innocent time, before icebergs and sea ice had become an indicator of climate change, when convention framed such a view as majestic, rather than temporal or even tragic.”

And in a TV weather forecast in Upernavik, Campbell tells us, “Europe, North America, the rest of the world are off the map, beyond the edges of the screen — out of sight, out of mind” — just as those parts of the world that were ravaged first by climate disruption are often out of mind in Europe and North America. In this journey, she has joined the dots between nations who don’t always recognise their primary interdependence.

Another parallel: for hunters in Qaanaaq, where the ice is retreating, “The changing climate has removed both the possibility of movement, and the promise of rest”. Perhaps we face a corresponding conundrum in the guilty West, with many of us stuck in the chronic busywork of overconsumption yet still lacking a collective sense of the way forward.

Artists residence, Upernavik. Photograph by Nancy Campbell
Artists residence, Upernavik
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2012

Having starkly laid out the current condition of our planetary home, The Library of Ice concludes with an individual act of home-making: Campbell returns from her travels to a new base in the UK.

It strikes me that the book plays it very cool in ending as it does, transporting us to the melting point (and no further) in the settings it explores. This is no bad thing, I think. It leaves us to ponder for ourselves the journey onwards to unbearable temperatures, to drought and death — a journey already completed in the most vulnerably situated countries, and one that many more of us will make, globally, if our nature scholarship is lacking, or if we fail to start living by it in the very near future. 


Find out more

Sally Moss is currently Commonweal’s freelance Social Media and Website Project Coordinator — using online platforms to link forms of nonviolence activism and prompt grass-­roots action — and interviewed ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe for Commonweal in July 2018, published simultaneously here.

Nancy Campbell is also a ClimateCultures Member. The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate is published by Simon & Schuster / Scribner UK. Nancy has previously published a poetry collection, Disko Bay, and artists’ books, including The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet. She was the UK Canal Laureate 2018. Nancy’s posts for ClimateCultures include The Polar Tombola and A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7.  

Sally Moss
Sally Moss
A writer, editor, researcher and activist exploring the cultural shift required to live regeneratively and adapt well to the Anthropocene.
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Wildfire and Fox

Writer Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Canada — a town that was born during the 1903 mineral rush. She shares a powerful account of signals to be detected in Cobalt’s burning forests and the cry of a fox.


1,490 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes + 4 minutes video 


Brit’s post is the second in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the 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 — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

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Wildfire and fox: dispatches from forests burning in Cobalt, Ontario

Summer 2018. Woken up by the smell of smoke. Summer night and the windows are thrown open, the wind sending traces of Temagami forest’s burning drifting into my room. The forests behind Elk Lake are on fire too. I don’t know it yet, not then in the night, but so is the faraway Arctic Circle. Does taiga smell the same as birch and jack pine when it’s burning?

Forests burning, Ontario
Forests burning, Ontario
Photograph: Valerie Hosteller © 2018

It’s disorienting, the darkness, the smoke, at first I thought it was the stoked ashes from a dream, but then there is a shrieking and I am fully awake. Then I hear it again, riding these night breezes thick with carbon, insistent and piercing. It is, I think, fox.

I am used to her screams now — but still they are uncanny. She is calling through the darkness, and we all listen, me, dog, cat. At the window now listening. Is she far away or close to the house? Impossible to tell, the spooky cries passed from tree to tree. Just like a banshee’s wails along the valley. No wonder folks believed in such beings. The sounds tonight, stirred and mixed with the smoke, maybe belong biologically to fox, but are otherworldly too, spiritually something else.

But what? At one time, people might have recognized all of this with more ease. Folks had their nature spirits, saw forests teeming with magic. It would be standing room only on a night like this, what with the burnings and the keening.

Could be time to try and find those things again — the beings and the creatures that we have forgotten. That we can’t see anymore. That we cannot hear anymore. Cannot hear that sublime singing of the trees, each one with their own song, cannot hear either their ultrasonic distress signals when they are parched.

We used to listen to trees, talk to them even (and not in a ‘let’s put on Pachelbel and be nice to the jade plant’ kind of way). When nature was magic we would turn to its wisdom, seek solace from oak trees, leave tokens at deadfall for the spirits. The forest was not something to be managed, not a site of resource extraction, not a source of consumables. They gave us things, of course, the forest and the fields. Timber, firewood, plants, medicine, game and berries, but also wisdom, guidance in surviving, companionship. Everyone needed parts of everyone else.

Living so close, paying such attention, it changes the relationship. Like being in love.

But we can’t be close if we are on the outside looking in. As it is now, we are only visitors, not companions, equals, comrades in arms. Removing ourselves from nature, setting humans apart from that teeming forest of magic, was probably a mistake. Probably has landed us in this global fever.

Torpid waters. Coral reefs swooning with anaemia. Bring me my smelling salts.

Little creeks dry up, creeks for frogs and sprites. The sprites, of course, went extinct long ago. Many frogs are likely to follow. The triggers for frog mating are temperature and rainfall. All this dry, all this heat? Frog romance taking a beating.

So maybe the separation of the human from the non-human is a boundary or barrier we should try to dismantle. To see what seeps through. Because all those binaries — they are helpful in sorting objects and events into categories, organizing things. But we aren’t sorting our closets, we’re trying to salvage our world. None of them, human/non-human, life/death, magic/science, irrational/rational, can help me understand what fox is trying to say.

I can only hazard a guess:

fox says it is ultrasonic in the woods tonight,
wonders why can’t I hear it.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Photograph: Sue Nielsen © 2018

Note: Brit has also recorded a special video of her reading Wildfire and Fox, published simultaneously with ClimateCultures as The Summer the Planet Burned: Radio Free Cobalt:

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Wildfire and Fox — context

Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Ontario, a town that was born during Ontario’s last mineral rush in 1903 — a silver rush that was pretty much over by 1919. Current population: around 1100.  http://cobalt.ca/visitors/history/

Temagami is a world-renowned tourist destination known for its wilderness lakes and old growth forests. It is also home, and always has been, of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai on Bear Island. Elk Lake, a town of around 500 people, survives mostly on its timber mill. 

Many sources which have expanded our understanding of the science on trees over recent years. Two interesting articles are: Trees Make Noises, and Some of Those Sounds Are Cries for Help by Rachel Nuwer for The Smithsonian (16/4/13), and Trees Have Their Own Songs, by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (4/4/17). As the Smithsonian article points out, “knowing what kinds of noises trees in distress produce means researchers may be able to target those most in need of emergency waterings during droughts.”

The Atlantic article is a review of David George Haskell’s 2013 book The Forest Unseen.

You can find out more about the forests burning in northern Ontario in this article from CBC, Radio Canada (19/7/18) by Benjamin Aubé, Some provincial parks in Temagami area closed due to forest fires could re-open soon, which reports a quadrupling of forest fires in the region. The fire was called the North Bay 72 and a good part was on the traditional territory of Temagami First Nation. You can read and hear a disturbing report on forests burning across the Arctic in this piece from CBC, ‘We ain’t seen anything yet’: Even the Arctic is burning as wildfires rage around the world’; it features an excellent interview with Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.  

The lands manager (Robin Koistinen) from Temagami First Nation said of the recent fire, on Facebook, “Mother Nature did some major housecleaning! In recent memory, no one knows of a larger fire on nDaki Menan, almost 28,000 hectares, there are 10,000 hectares in a Township! A township is 6 miles by 6 miles or 10 km by 10 km! So figure out the size of this fire in Square Kim’s, or miles! Big big Fire.” Her Facebook post includes this video footage flying over the damage from the fires. 

Sue Nielsen, who took the photograph of the fox, is reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, The Temiskaming Speaker. She takes wildlife photography around the area.

Brit Griffin
Brit Griffin
Author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries.
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Signals from the Edge

See Signals from the Edge for other contributions to this series.

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? ClimateCultures offers members a challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind but we overhear by chance; an artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create -- image, short text, sound, storyboard, dream sequence, or combination of any of these or something other – it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. 

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time, in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. 

What edge does your signal represent? It might be a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing...

The Riddle of the Trees: A Paean for the Natural World

Forest - Rooted. Artist: Salli HipkissWriter and artist Salli Hipkiss shares an extract from her novel’s manuscript — a glimpse into the heart of the story and its forest, and further into the development of character, meaning and writing for the ‘We Generation’.


2,560 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes 


In her first post in this two-part series, My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis, Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write The Riddle of the Trees as a creative work on climate change.

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The Riddle of the Trees

Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum.  She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction. She knew the way well.  Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.

     The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar.  A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack.  While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit.  Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro.  Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.

     Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest?  A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?

     Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study?  Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them?  Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures? 

     Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds?  Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years? 

     Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another.  She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.   

     Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong.  Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed.  She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be.  Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency.  A frailty.  A ghostliness even.

     Suddenly she knew what this was.  It was what Gramps had feared the most.  This was Disintegration.

(Excerpt from The Riddle of the Trees, © Salli Hipkiss 2008. Latest edition 2017. As yet unpublished. All rights reserved.)

***

Forest - 'Rooted' Acrylic and pastel on canvas. Image: Salli Hipkiss
‘Rooted’ Acrylic and pastel on canvas
Image: Salli Hipkiss © 2000
www.sallihipkiss.com

Love for the natural world

Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story. After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book. I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Trees it feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story. 

In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:

‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’

This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story. It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues. This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke. 

I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character. In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.

Forest — a riddle for the many

At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures. At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed. The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees. However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution. 

Forest - Puck's Glen, Scotland. Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Puck’s Glen, Scotland.
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2006
www.sallihipkiss.com

Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms. His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous. But he is not evil. 

This distinction was important to me. When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created. My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated. Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before. For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story. 

The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.

Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Rootedness

Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery. However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems. Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community — including globally — that lies at the heart of the book.

Old Road, Yorkshire Dales<br /> Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Old Road, Yorkshire Dales
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2009
www.sallihipkiss.com

Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today. Reflecting on his famous ending line “… I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own. 

Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways. The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’. They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence. This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.

In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey. She writes:

“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’. But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”

In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony. To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole. Blackie continues:

“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”

In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:

“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”

For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way. 


Find out more

Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. And Salli’s recent poemModest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake

Patrick Barkham’s quotation from Matthew Oates is in his review of three books on butterflies; Rainbow Dust; The Moth Snowstorm; and In Pursuit of Butterflies review – three tributes to the humble Lepidoptera, published in The Guardian (16/7/15).

You can find out more about Sharon Blackie’s work, including her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, at www.sharonblackie.net And you can download a sample chapter from her publisher, September Publishing.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) is published by Bloomsbury, and Wikipedia has a brief summary

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003. 

The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.

Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. 

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was released by Studio Ghibli in 2001. In a 15th-anniversary review at Vice (20/7/16), Hannah Ewans discusses The Meaning of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, the Best Animated Film of All Time.

Salli Hipkiss
Salli Hipkiss
A writer, artist and educator, producing picture books, a novel and songs, with a background teaching and facilitating arts and sustainability with schools and communities.
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