A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

Anthropologist Lisa J. Lucero shares a talk she recorded specially for ClimateCultures, drawing on her extensive archaeological research into how ancient Maya culture adapted to environmental change, and whose non-anthropocentric cosmology can help us rethink our own worldview.


1,190 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes + 42 minutes video


I have spent over 30 years studying the ancient Maya, and I have learned so much from the Maya, past and present. The book I am working on — Sacred Maya Forests, Ancient Environmentalism, and Our Future — shares what I have learned about the Maya world and the insights we can draw from that are relevant today.

Both the archaeological record and Maya foremen and field assistants (the guys), some of whom have worked with me for over 20 years, have taught me much about their way of life. I have seen their children grow, get married, and have children of their own. Even though I have been working in central Belize for decades, I still would never go into the jungle without the guys — Mother Nature only laughs at high tech toys. Nothing is better than their knowledge and experience. They not only help me teach students archaeology, but they also provide lots of the gear we need. They make ladders from trees for taking photos and for getting in and out of deep excavation pits. They also make unit stakes, screen racks and tables using branches and vines. To protect us and excavations from sun and rain, the guys use corozo leaf and logs to make palapas — open-sided dwellings with a thatched roof. Cleofo, a Mopan Maya and one of my foremen, uses bamboo to make tools to excavate human remains since they don’t scratch bones like metal tools do.

I only hope I get to go to Belize in May 2021 for a six-week field season. I have a three-year National Science Foundation Grant to fund a rescue archaeology project in recently cleared areas that have exposed hundreds of ancient Maya mounds/structures. There is so much more to learn.

A cosmology for sustainability

Together, the archaeological record and my Maya foremen and assistants provide the means to address major questions, the key ones being: how have the Maya been able to farm for 4,000 years without denuding the tropical landscape? What insights can we draw from the Maya that are relevant today? I begin addressing these questions in my presentation here, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’, which you can watch below.

The Classic Maya (c. 250-900 CE) are famous for their jungle cities with temples, palaces, tombs, ballcourts, exquisitely carved monuments, inscribed jades, and painted ceramics. Maya farmers, who supported this urban system, lived before, during, and after the emergence and demise of Maya kings between c. 200 BCE and 900 CE because of how they lived, which itself was informed by their non-anthropocentric worldview. This worldview, a cosmology of conservation, resulted in sustainable practices and was expressed in their daily life — rituals, farming, hunting, forest management, socializing, etc. As a case study, I highlight the pilgrimage destination of Cara Blanca, Belize.

Ego vs ecocentrism in Maya cosmology
Ego vs. Eco: the former resulted in the Anthropocene, the latter in sustainable practices. Generated by J. Gonzalez Cruz and L. J. Lucero, 2020

The traditional Maya worldview espouses that humans were one of many parts (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world they shared. Everything in Classic Maya society was animated and connected via souls. The Maya worked with nature, not against it. Nor did they attempt to control it. Such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation, allowing the Maya to feed more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently.

Adapting to a changing world

The Classic Maya lived in hundreds of cities, each with their own king, surrounded by rural farmsteads. This low-density agrarian urban system integrated water and agricultural systems, cities, farmsteads and communities, exchange networks, and resources. Rural farmers depended on city reservoirs during the annual five-month dry season — the agricultural downtime. Cities exerted a centripetal pull on rural Maya through markets, public ceremonies, and other large-scale public events — and the massive reservoirs. In turn, cities depended on the rural populace to fund the political economy in the form of labor, services (craft specialists, hunters, etc.), agricultural produce (e.g. maize, beans, manioc, squash, pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, etc.), and forest resources (wood, fuel, construction materials, medicinal plants, chert, game, fruit, etc.).

Showing an abandoned Mayan city, Tikal
Tikal – abandoned Mayan city
Photo: A. Kinkella

The Maya relied on rainfall to nourish their fields and replenish reservoirs during the annual rainy season between about mid-June to mid-January. The relatively little surface water due to the porous limestone bedrock, topography (e.g. entrenched rivers), and dispersed resources discouraged large-scale irrigation systems. The Maya began building reservoirs in cities c. 100 BCE. A growing population resulted in increasingly larger and more sophisticated reservoirs (e.g. dams, channels, filtration, etc.). Urban planning and layout increasingly became interlinked with reservoir systems, creating anthropogenic landscapes still visible today. Further, maintaining reservoir water quality would have been crucial to curtail the presence of waterborne parasites and diseases, such as hepatic schistosomiasis, and the build-up of noxious elements such as nitrogen. The Maya kept water clean by creating wetland biospheres through the use of certain surface and subsurface plants, as well as aquatic life.

A series of prolonged droughts struck between c. 800 and 930 CE. When reservoir levels began dropping, water quality worsened and water plants died, along with Maya kingship. Maya abandoned kings and cities, dispersing out of the interior southern lowlands in all directions. While this response was drastic, it was an adaptive strategy — one that worked, as evidenced by the over seven million Maya currently living in Central America and elsewhere.

Maya farmers survived because they relied on sustainable agricultural practices and forest management, both designed within the constructs of their worldview. The insights I have gained from the archaeological record and my Maya crew are a roadmap for a more sustainable future for us all. By the end of my presentation, I hope to convince you rethinking how we view and interact with the world is the first step for a sustainable future.

Click on the screenshot below to view Lisa’s presentation.

Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation
Click on image to link to Lisa’s ClimateCultures talk, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’ https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/1_b0f1i6fj

Find out more

Lisa has shared some suggested reading from her research, for you to explore beyond her presentation. You can also read her earlier ClimateCultures post, Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings.

Larmon, Jean T., H. Gregory McDonald, Stanley Ambrose, Larisa R. G. DeSantis, and Lisa J. Lucero (2019): A Year in the Life of a Giant Ground Sloth During the Last Glacial Maximum in Belize. (Science Advances, 5:eaau1200).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2017): Ancient Maya Water Management, Droughts, and Urban Diaspora: Implications for the Present, pages 162-188 in Tropical Forest Conservation: Long-Term Processes of Human Evolution, Cultural Adaptations and Consumption Patterns, edited by Nuria Sanz, Rachel Christina Lewis, Jose Pulido Mata, and Chantal Connaughton (UNESCO, Mexico).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2018): A Cosmology of Conservation in the Ancient Maya World. (Journal of Anthropological Research. 74:327-359).

Lucero, Lisa J., and Jesann Gonzalez Cruz (2020): Reconceptualizing Urbanism: Insights from Maya Cosmology. (Frontiers in Sustainable Cities: Urban Resource Management, 2:1).

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
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On Green Verges

Writer Julian Bishop, living on the very edge of the metropolis, found a fascination with local verges during Covid-19 lockdown — and their previously unregarded nature took up residency in his imagination, leading him to a poetic challenge.


 1,210 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Odd, but lockdown opened up the world for me more than closing it down. I live on the very edge of London (High Barnet, actually) in what we joke is the last road in London. Two minutes’ drive away, houses give way to fields and woods before being reined in by the M25. A true green belt.

Being a busy London-sort, my direction of travel used to be either by car to another conurbation or by Tube into a metropolis. Oh, I’d walk to the gym to do a treadmill run and take the dog around the block. Lots of treadmills to choose from, in fact.

And then all the treadmills stopped. My regular journeys into London, aimless shopping trips, poetry readings, my regular contemporary poetry workshop in Enfield — all ground to a halt almost overnight.

The lack of a gym was easy to fix — I started to run (and walk the dog) through the mysterious green acres I’d dismissed as ‘not real countryside’. And gradually my forays extended deeper and deeper, further and further.

Life on the verges

I discovered a bluebell wood, a marvellous open space called charmingly Saffron Green, an ancient yew wood, a stream I never knew existed, which is a source of Dollis Brook… I could go on. And when I ran along the roads, I started to look down and around rather than straight ahead. I became obsessed with the verges — so many wildflowers and verge-dwellers giving their presence away with little quivers in the grass.

Showing verges at Saffron Green, Herts
Living verges – Saffron Green
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

And I began to notice what fellow ClimateCultures member Dave Hubble described in his recent blog as “the beauty in ugliness”, particularly on the unloved verges with their dramatic stands of hemlock, beefy cow parsleys and diverse grasses. My run takes me alongside a short stretch of the A1, which foamed with hemlock in June — how many motorists realised they were driving through a natural toxic cloud? And what I ran or walked past every day slowly took up residency in my head.

All this while, I’d been responding to lockdown through poetry. I decided to take up the challenge set by fellow poet Jacqueline Saphra (whose Poetry School classes I used to attend pre-covid) who decided to write a sonnet a day. I think I lasted about three days… and Jacqui went on to write a hundred (she’s been recording them and putting them up on Twitter).

The Sonnet Room

But I managed a couple of dozen — and noticed, as they developed, the predictable themes about missing loved ones and fear of the future gave way to these unremarkable and unloved stalwarts of the natural world. I took notes for what I called my ‘Sonnet Room’, which I decorated with all these wonderful so-called ‘weeds’. I dreamt of bittersweet, common hogweeds. The bluebell wood earned a sonnet of its own — as did Saffron Green, which was published as part of Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project.

Showing bluebell woods
Bluebell woods
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

Some of these new poems I’ve included in a submission for a pamphlet that I’m hoping to get illustrated and printed.

And other poems presented themselves beyond the sonnet form: a sunbathing grass snake spotted one day on the road verge, crawling over a pile of laughing-gas canisters; a hedgehog (sadly knocked over); the binbag-strewn ditches; a bramble next to a fly-tip, with the biggest blackberries I’ve ever seen…

So lockdown was (excuse the pun) an extremely fruitful time as a poet — and now I’m hooked. What will the bluebell wood look like in the dead of winter? Saffron Green frosted? The stream in flood? How will the verges look next year when the council cutters come back with a vengeance?

Saffron Green

I discovered it on a run – something
I’d never done before, exploring
the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone,
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just feet away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane
rush by, the tang of arcane
carbon in its wake, now obsolete
as packed tubes or nine to five
and I was astounded to be alive.

 

The Hunt

Such silent nights – roads breathless
as if they were infected. What we’d lost –
constant traffic, the drizzle of exhaust –
invisible and insidious as asbestos
or the virus itself. Then a blood-clabbering
sound emerged: a nightly chorus,
foxes hollering like a hunt in reverse –
as if hounded animals were fighting
back. A beastly untameable disease
stalked the streets while humans retreated
like quarry to a den, our vulnerabilities
sniffed out by a hungry meat-eater.
Lives on pause for weeks – it smacked
of wild animals getting their own back.

 

Rush Hour

One month in and a wild rush hour
quickened along the verges, nature
slamming down hard on the accelerator –
rigs of cow parsley towered
over kerbs in Galley Lane, exploding
into stars, rivers of bluebells lapped
against the tarmac on a surge of sap
fuelled by a million lost springs.
Dandelions had no time to turn clocks
into ashes when the lockdown stopped.
Air charged with birdsong soured
in the roar of a more familiar rush hour;
when strimmers returned to crew-cut
the verges, all our new rivers dried up.

Poems © Julian Bishop 2020


Find out more

Julian previously contributed The Hunt for Day 21 of our Quarantine Connection series, and some of his recent poems appear in a chapbook anthology, Poems for the Planet, alongside three other contributors: Maggie Butt, Sarah Doyle and Cheryl Moskowitz. Julian says: “The four of us launched it just a couple of weeks before lockdown at the Faversham Literary Festival in Kent, sharing a bill that included Jenny Eclair, Ken Livingstone and Everything But the Girl singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn. Our London launch was at Christ Church in Southgate which is registered as an Eco Church with A Rocha (an international network of environmental organisations with a Christian ethos).” Poems for the Planet is available from Maggie Butt’s website.

Julian mentioned Dave Hubble’s ClimateCultures post, On Re-emergence and the Avoidance of Clichés, where Dave comments: “I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful.”

Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project published Julian’s poem Saffron Green on their community website Herts Memories, in July 2020.

You can find Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets on Twitter, and more information on 100 days of sonnets: unlocking that maddening door at her website. See The Poetry School for their courses, including with Jacqueline.

UK charity Plantlife has published a Good Verge Guide – a different approach to managing our waysides and verges (2016) and a guide to plant life on our road verges, Road verges – Last refuge for some of our rarest wild flowers and plants (2017). They are currently running their Road Verge Campaign: “If all the UK’s road verges were managed according to our guidelines, there could be 400 billion more flowers, equivalent to an extra quarter of a million acres of meadow. Just imagine!”

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.
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On Re-emergence and the Avoidance of Clichés

Artist and writer Dave Hubble reflects on his creativity under lockdown: how novel conditions and wanting to avoid coronavirus-saturated art sparked new work, drawing out potential beauty in the materiality of pollution and prompting the question, what next?


1,620 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


Half a year ago everything stopped — galleries closed, exhibitions and performances were cancelled or postponed, and we did our best to make art in the spaces (and headspaces) we were left with. Some events went online but in most cases, welcome though that is, it’s rarely the same experience. Culture needs space and people in real life. We want a sense of texture, of immersion in the space, and the opportunity to ignore the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs even though we wouldn’t really.

Now, some of this is starting to reappear and we get to tackle our ‘rona-fear and decide whether we’re ready to be in the same places as other people, even in a limited way. Galleries have begun opening with online booking for limited timed slots and I’ve just had an email asking whether I’m still interested in exhibiting at a show originally scheduled for April 2020 (I am). I’m back in my studio a day or two a week, complete with rules for distancing, sanitising and air-flow. Gatherings, even outdoors, are still listed under ‘nope’. By the time that show launches in late October, I might be willing to attend the opening, we shall see.

However, this is all about what happens to art after it’s been made — what about our creativity itself? Some of us have managed to be productive during lockdown, others haven’t, whether due to lack of suitable space or simply having that part of them squashed by anxiety. I’ve been lucky in that I was able to set aside some space at home, and time off from gallery work and all those launch events meant I could make art. It wasn’t the same art though — I had neither the space nor materials to work on the messy junk-art installations I favour, so I dripped and splattered paint in the back yard when the weather was reliably warm and dry, but mostly I drew. Table + paper + pen.

Lockdown art: showing 'The Male' by Dave Hubble
‘The Male’, charcoal on paper, A4
Image: Dave Hubble © 2020

Novelty under lockdown

I dug up ‘finds’, cleaned, drew and described them, and produced a faux-report to create a piece called Lockdown Garden Archaeology. One day I may get to show it somewhere, but in any case it’s something I wouldn’t have produced under other circumstances. During the process, I found lumps of charcoal in the soil, from a bygone barbecue presumably, and used them to draw. I wouldn’t have done that either and the same goes for the sound-pieces I produced linked to Zoom writing workshops and our virtual Open Studios event — a departure from my usual practice, and a welcome one, regardless of the reason. One question is unavoidable though — what next?

Lockdown art: showing 'Lockdown Garden Archaeology' by Dave Hubble
Detail from ‘Lockdown Garden Archaeology’ showing one of the finds, scale bar in cm.
Image: Dave Hubble © 2020

As we respond to the world around us, it’s easy to feel pushed towards making ‘rona-themed art, but we may not want to. Unlike my visual work, aside from an existing commission and my responses to a few workshops, my poetic output dropped to almost nothing. I didn’t want to write about the pandemic, but that’s all there was, so I wrote little. Free-writing reams of anxiety did not clear the way for other topics, and I felt no urge to add to the mushrooming of lockdown novels and collections. Some will be great, most won’t be, but maybe that’s not their purpose. As we reemerge, the same issue develops, and my mind is full of clichés — blossoming, chrysalis, survivors crawling from their bunker to blink in the sunlight. I do not want to make work based on these, not even ironically. I’m unsure whether my artistic output should ignore what is, currently, a hugely important aspect of life, but attempts to produce any ‘rona-based creative output simply leave me feeling flat. I am saturated by it and need to think about something else.

Polluted truth: beauty in ugliness

Of course there is no shortage of urgent topics to respond to. None are soothing, but that’s not the point from my perspective — I rarely produce primarily decorative work in any case, and so I return to the fundamentals of my practice. I am, above all else, a junk-artist focusing on the use of waste materials in my work. I am materials-driven, they are my prompts. Paint on canvas remains an artistic staple, so that’s the route I took last week, repainting an old canvas with a selection of bequeathed enamel paints that were sat there, waiting to be used.

I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful. This is of course not a new concept; in the 19th century, Thomas Hardy wrote “To find beauty in ugliness is the province of the poet.” As mentioned above, I’ve found the poetical route difficult recently, but the visual one less so, and a quick web search finds no shortage of photographs depicting the rainbow colours of pollution from industrial outflows and the iridescent shimmer of oil. Pollution is ugly as a concept, but there is a beauty to be found in it — one that is as unwelcome as any positives we may personally get from lockdown, whether a reappreciation of our living space, an opportunity to take some time off, a chance to reevaluate our working and social lives, or even acknowledgement that being able to do these is a form of privilege.

The outcome of mixing enamel and sand, pouring and brushing, is Yellow Boy. The sand forms bars and channels that the paint soaks into and fills, pooling in places to create a flat reflective surface. It is a small, artificial landscape, and the title is the name of a type of water pollution caused by mining, where iron (III) hydroxide precipitates to form a yellowish solid. Sometimes the compound is so concentrated that it can be collected and used commercially to make pigments. There’s a certain irony in this as some of the pigments will go on to produce visually pleasing results, and a satisfying parallel to the work itself.

Re-emergence from lockdown: showing 'Yellow Boy' by Dave Hubble
‘Yellow Boy’ (2020), enamel and sand on canvas, 40 x 50 cm
Image: Dave Hubble © 2020
Showing detail from 'Yellow Boy' by Dave Hubble
‘Yellow Boy’ (2020), enamel and sand on canvas, 40 x 50 cm, (detail)
Image: Dave Hubble © 2020

So, how does this tie into the idea of re-emergence? The subject matter doesn’t, but it is the first piece I’ve made since lockdown which is designed to be hung on a gallery wall, and maybe even bought (you never know). It exists because I am once again looking towards events in the real world. It is heavily textured in a way that does not lend itself to online exhibition. I could take angled shots to show this, but that is not how it was made to be seen.

None of us knows if and when a second wave will happen, and if it does, whether it will happen everywhere or patchily with local lockdowns. We can plan for events to happen, knowing they might get postponed, but we’re used to that now. We can look at ourselves and see how we’ve changed. I’ve vowed not to let myself get as overworked as I was until March, and that includes being more selective about which art events I go to, focusing on those where the artists and organisers reciprocate and support others in the local scene. I know that doesn’t apply to bigger names, but on a local level, maybe we can break those cliques and barriers a little, overlap our Venn-circles, be a bit more mutually supportive. The Arts have been hit hard by ‘rona, we need solidarity. We need to change, shed some old ways, and fly… damn.


Find out more

Dave offered his poem and painting, A Time for Shedding, during Week 4 of our Quarantine Connection series, where you can explore 40 contributions from our member artists, curators and researchers. What has been your experience of coronavirus lockdown and the gradual reemergence from that? Have you found new ways to express creativity?…

Dave mentioned the Southampton Open Studios event he took part in, which this year was run online, and he has written about this at his blog: Openings (24/7/20). And you can read about the sound-pieces he produced in lockdown: Aroundsound (31/7/20).

The website of non-profit organisation Earthworks discusses the problems of acid mine drainage, such as the pollution that Dave has drawn on for his work: “Acid mine drainage can be released anywhere on the mine where sulfides are exposed to air and water — including waste rock piles, tailings, open pits, underground tunnels, and leach pads. Acid drainage is often marked by ‘yellow boy,’ an orange-yellow substance that occurs when the pH of acidic mine-influenced water raises above pH 3 … so that the previously dissolved iron precipitates out.”

On the question of finding beauty in ugliness, Dave shared Emily Brady’s paper Ugliness and Nature, published in Enrahonar: an International Journal of Theoretical and Practical Reason (45, 2010). Brady argues that we might have reasons to care about ugliness in nature, and therefore seek to protect it: “experiences of ugliness have epistemic value, they increase our ‘aesthetic intelligence’ through the development of an engaged appreciative awareness of ugliness and all forms of aesthetic value. How might this aesthetic intelligence translate into developing a moral attitude toward nature? Through the exploration of the negative side of aesthetic value, we discover, I think, a different kind of relationship to nature, one that is not friendly or close, but one that strains us through its uneasiness.”

Dave Hubble
Dave Hubble
An artist and former ecologist exploring how people will be creative in a future that looks increasingly bleak, but tinged with hope that it won't be.
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Towards an Erotics of Place

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


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Quartet — desert life

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

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

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

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

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

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

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

A desert calling

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Othering — on Woodlands, Maps and Language

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

 


2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


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

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

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

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

Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Nature in its place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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