Un-tending the World — A Geopoetics of the Wild

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White finds in James Roberts’s ‘Two Lights’ a profound, close observation of the living world: a wise blending between writer and subject that encapsulates the essence of geopoetics as the sensitive expression of reality.


1,780 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


“There is a skill in un-tending to our spaces, in patiently leaving them to their own remaking. It’s a skill that is vital now, when the damage we’ve done to earth has become so urgently in need of reversal. Some of the best examples we have are found in old churchyards. We can enter and quietly watch the slow unfurling of the space. Perhaps we can rediscover our sense of the sacred.”

James Roberts’s work has been on my radar since I received and reviewed a copy of his astounding Winged four years ago, as the UK and much of the world remained in lockdown during the Covid pandemic. My gut feeling then was that this book
marked the emergence of an artist whose observation and awareness of the creatures of this earth are precise, startling, and vital. And needed, urgently.
I wrote then that he is ultimately a realist interlocutor, and now I’m convinced.

“In this twilight space that echoes with the sound of the falls there is an elsewhere that is almost touchable. Children, every one a little animist, are born with a sense of mystery in nature, though we educate it out of them. It returns at times, in places like this. “

Here, in his new work, it is James’s words and narrative that lead, with a carefully curated collection of images that stand alongside — supporting, not dominating. And his words track difficult and often unimaginable terrain: his wife’s illness, his depression, and the various ecological crises we are foisting upon our world that are accumulating into a bigger disaster of ecosystem collapses that we cannot understand.

Geopoetics in ink: Showing a Swift from the book 'Two Lights' by James Roberts
Swift from the book ‘Two Lights’ by James Roberts

Geopoetics — seeking a renewed sense of world

All of this has sent James out to walk, wander, explore and observe: bigger journeys in earlier days, across Africa and the Algerian desert, and then more recently closer to home, along rivers and streams meandering through Wales and the Welsh/Herefordshire Marches, woods, fields and edgeland strips and crevices.

“I’m doing my best to imagine a species of bird on a planet like ours, but utterly different, thousands of light years away. I imagine this planet spins on a more oblique axis to its sun so that twilight in its northerly and southerly regions lasts for days. Here evolution has favoured creatures which can create their own light. Its oceans glow, lit by clouds of algae. In its strange forests trees have evolved needles which shine like Christmas decorations. And in its skies are great birds blocking out the pointillist patterns of the surrounding galaxies. The birds have long necks and wide wings. They are covered with phosphorescent feathers, standing out against the sky, like luminous swans or comets.”

This is from the opening chapter, ‘Chasing the Dawn’, tracking the start and spread of each dawn across the world, and demonstrates a deftness, an acuteness, and a sense of an observer-participant in this universe, that really fizzles. It sets this book up beautifully.

He leads us across different terrains and habitats, describing how different species of birds interact with and are moved or motivated by the sun’s rising, and then brings us back to ‘home’ with him, with a placing and drawing of his own terrain, and then an overview of how he came to be there.

The chapter delves into a description of his connection to bird life, birding, or bird knowledges — this is such a wise blending between writer and subject. It is as though we are being gently told or forewarned that from here on in, the writer becomes bird, and will be shamanicly moving between these worlds throughout the book.

Showing 'Watching for Swans' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Watching for Swans’ from Two Lights. Image by James Roberts © 2023

The words flow as black marks making narratives on the page, and then as we turn some pages we find a resonant wash of a bird flying across the whiteness. A swan champions upwards, neck and wings extended (I searched for the right descriptive word there, and championing feels like the very best at my disposal right now), within or against a black/grey gloom or miasma, passing across and over.

I’m influenced by the Scottish poet/philosopher Kenneth White, who advocated an approach to life known as geopoetics, defined by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics as “seeking a renewed sense of world, a sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics, expressing reality in different ways, through de-conditioning and using all our senses”. This work — I’m unable to call it simply ‘a book’ — encapsulates all of that, glued together with feathers held and dropped by all the avian community flying past James’s close-observing eye.

Swans abound minutes from my house close to a bend in the River Cam, and I too stop and watch and wonder as they glide and move, inhabiting and dominating watery space. There’s a bird interplay, along this hallowed river space, between swans, ducks, and a heron (I assume it’s a single solitary heron, with a defined hunting ground, though there is a ‘heron tree’ a mile or so further down, which is known to house a dozen or so at various times). And of course there’s at times a very active human layer, University and town teams rowing along at speed, their coaches on cycles bellowing from the towpath. Then there’s the below-the-water-line interplay, although with three sewage inputs within a couple of hundred metres any aquatic life is seriously threatened. And yet, the swans live here! They arch, and breed, and feed. Life.

“It’s our fate on this ocean-facing island, if our direction of travel as a culture continues, to face the rising waters, the ever-more-frequently-boiling rivers. We may continue to poison them, to carve, block, and silt them up for a time yet, believing as we do that they are simply our resources to be harnessed. But they will outlast us and their waters will run clean, eventually. There will come a time when this stretch of river will flow wilder than it does now.”

Creation in the ruins

In another striking sequence, within the chapter titled ‘The Church and the Island’, James writes about visits to ancient churches, creates pictures, discusses religious practices, especially asceticism — fascinating histories of hermits Evagrius and Cynog — and even hearing an ethereal voice testing the acoustics in one building.  He then returns us to the ruins, to the wild, and the becoming that transcends facilitated worship towards an other-worldly deity.

Other snapshots he brings us include tragic moments of hatred invested upon the natural world by some of us. Shooting at swans, tearing apart foxes, throwing an owl’s already dead body onto a road to be crushed by vehicles, and the ugly reality of compulsive photography — of everything! — rather than seeing, observing, sensing, listening, and being with.

Two Lights is writings and images in the ruins. The desolation of despoliation, and not knowing the catastrophe that humans are catapulting ourselves towards. And yet, through close witness, and perhaps the collapse of our ego clutching to all we think we know, the avian world is just there — here, right alongside us. Whether or not they might save us is immaterial. Their equal existence is what’s important, and how we may come to notice that through the witnessing experiences, reflections, and decline of our own mortal lives. He really is writing and creating work about passageways through time and air, led by avian species that live their lives in focussed flights of movement, within landscapes of loss and life.

“Across the continent many species are on fire, crops withering in the prolonged drought and vulnerable people dying. Every single community on Earth, human or wild, has now encountered losses caused by the depletion of nature and by global warming. Unless we find a way to heal the damage we’ve done the losses will accelerate. It will take a huge shift in our psyches to achieve this. Every country, city and village, every community and family needs to ask the question: who speaks for wolf, for bear, for fox, for gull, for heron, for kingfisher – for all species, not just our own?”

'Wolf' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Wolf’ from ‘Two Lights’. Image by James Roberts © 2023

Find more

Geopoetics as untending the world: Showing the cover of 'Two Lights' by James Roberts, published in 2023.Two Lights – walking through landscapes of loss and life by writer and artist James Roberts is published by September Publishing (2023).

You can read a sample chapter at the link above — and explore much more at Night River Wood, James Roberts’s website and his Instagram.

In our Quarantine Connections series, you can read A River of Sound, a piece that James Roberts contributed during Week 8 of our communal sharing of creative content and reflections during the UK’s first Covid lockdowns of 2020. James said of this piece: “I wrote this piece a year ago as a response to an increasing awareness of my own gradual loss and also the almost unnoticeable fading of natural sounds from the landscape. A year later there is a noticeable increase of birds in the landscape, and particularly in the surrounding uplands where the curlews are calling more than I’ve ever heard before. I’m not sure if this equates to me being hopeful for the future of declining species, but it shows how very easy it would be for us to give the wild the space it needs to thrive.”

James Murray-White mentions The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, a network developing an understanding of geopoetics as the creative expression of the Earth. “It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’ in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” You canalos explore the International Institute of Geopoetics.

All the Little Gods Surrounding Us, his review of James Roberts’s earlier Winged is one of 14 posts that James Murray-White has written for us. ClimateCultures was seven years old this March! James was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

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.

A Drop in the Pond

Writer and online community newspaper publisher, Rod Raglin shares the story of a local Vancouver, Canada, park pond reduced to a seasonal wetland — and a neigbourhood’s dispute with administrators on how to respond amid severe climate change.


940 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


The pond at South Memorial Park is not so spectacular. It’s situated in the northwest corner of a thirteen-and-a-half-hectare suburban park in the Sunset neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. A few picnic tables are situated beneath the shade of some willows at one end of the pond and are popular during the summer months.

The vast majority of the park is given over to tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer pitch and a running track complete with outdoor exercise equipment.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it was
The pond as it was. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

Intervening in the park pond

In the past, the water level of the pond would fluctuate somewhat with the seasons, but never to the extent that it threatened the resident Mallards. What did begin to impinge on their living space were the reeds (phragmites) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus). These invasive species choked most of the shoreline and extended further and further into the open waterways, limiting flight and paddling paths.

The Vancouver Park Board decided to take action and initiated a costly renovation of the pond that included backhoes removing the infestations of reeds and yellow flags. A new boardwalk was constructed along a stretch of the shoreline and the pond was transformed from a brooding marsh to a sparkling gem.

But something went wrong and the pond levels began to recede – dramatically. Residents claimed Park Board workers damaged the pond’s natural clay membrane with the heavy equipment, causing it to leak. The Park Board denied it but, being an election year, conceded to the demands of the vocal and vociferous pond advocates.

The water levels were topped up with trucked in water for the balance of the summer until the fall rains did it naturally.

The next year the same thing began to happen, and once again the same people demanded that the pond be topped up until the Park Board fixed what they’d broken.

But by this time Vancouver City Council had passed the Water Works By-law (Prohibition Against Wasting Water) and the Drinking Water Conservation By-law (General Prohibition Against Wasting Water) which prohibited the use of potable water in park water features until such time as they could be retrofitted to be recirculating.

Significant ripples

British Columbia is feeling the brunt of climate change. For a number of years now, hot dry summers have sparked forest fires in the interior of the province that raged unabated. Outflow winds blow toxic wildfire smoke onto the coast and it’s not unusual for Vancouver’s air quality during the summer to be the worst on the planet.   

In 2021, a heat dome parked over the province and sent temperatures soaring into the mid 40s Celsius for six days, resulting in 619 related deaths. The temperature in the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon hit 49/6° C, the highest ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire burned the entire town to the ground.

Every year, the snowpack in the mountains is less, summer starts earlier and lasts longer, with the average temperature inching up. Where once watering restrictions were imposed occasionally, now they’re implemented annually without exception.

It turns out, to top up the pond for one year took 11 million litres of drinking water.

No, the Park Board said, the pond would not be topped up and would become a seasonal wetland.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it is now - "a seasonal wetland".
The pond as it is today – “a seasonal wetland”. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

The response immediately devolved into the type of rancorous debate characterized by adversarial rhetoric and personal attacks. Proponents for the pond cited the fact that a number of park water features had been exempted from the bylaws and were still operating. All were on the west side of the city, home to the affluent neighbourhoods. Politicians were accused of favouring one side of the city over the other, the side where they and their supporters live. It was even suggested that the decision to not top up the pond was racist, Sunset being one of the most racialized neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

The opposition was mute. If you were against the pond and for water conservation it was implied you were racist, elitist, privileged. Open-minded thinking shut down, trust was undermined, and misinformation thrived.

In the end, City Council passed a motion acknowledging the concerns of the pond proponents and requested an “update on the Park Board’s assessment of and plans for the restoration of the pond.”

A glimpse of the future

At the moment, the pond is almost dry, the ducks have abandoned it, and no one is picnicking around a smelly mud hole. On the other hand, the reservoir is ahead 11 million litres of drinking water.

Whether the pond is full or empty doesn’t put anyone’s life at risk, nor anyone’s livelihood for that matter. Livestock don’t die, crops don’t wither. Climate conflict is happening throughout the world and in many areas it’s not about a meditative moment or a family picnic

Vancouverites got a glimpse of the future. They saw how a small issue exacerbated by a far greater one can divide a neighbourhood, even a city. The advocates let emotion trump reason, and our leaders chose expedience over prudence.


Find out more

You can read more about the dispute over the South Memorial Park pond in The Revue, the Southeast Vancouver neighbourhood newspaper that Rod publishes and edits. For example: Information swirling around pond just gets murkier (8th July 2023).

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

Regional Futures: Giving Voice to Human and More-Than-Human

Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.


2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces


Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” [1], followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) [2], and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.

Listening to regional futures in New South Wales

In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia [3], where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.

In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.

However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.

Showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.
Artist, Kim V. Goldsmith listening to a solar inverter with an electromagnetic microphone.

As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.

Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.

 

Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.

My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes [4].

What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.

Regional Futures: Showing wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith
Wind turbines near Wellington NSW, part of the Bodangora Wind Farm. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.

The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come [5].

Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.

Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.

“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.

“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”

Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.

Regional Futures: Showing Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Bruce Maynard, 2022 National Landcare Award winner and fourth-generation farmer at Narromine in Central West NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”

Conversations with discomfort and hope

Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.

Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.

“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.

“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”

Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.

“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping. 

“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”

Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.

“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.

“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”

Regional Futures: showing High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph by Kim V. Goldsmith
High school student, Madelyn Leggett, from Wellington NSW. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.

“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.

“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”

Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures

It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights [6] and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.

I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.

Showing Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, which reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photo by Kim V. Goldsmith.
Humi Haptic Hands co-designed by Kim V. Goldsmith and Brian McNamara, reduce the Humi soundscape to four frequencies experienced as vibrations through 3D printed hands. Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith

The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”

As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.

 

The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.


References

[1] Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Previous Droughts.

[2] NSW Department of Planning and Environment: Understanding the effects of the 2019-20 fires.

[3] Australian Electoral Commission: Results from the 2022 Australian Government election at which the Australian Labor Party won (last in power in 2013).

[4] NSW Government: Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone.

[5] Greater Cities Commission: Past, present and future.

[6] The Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School: One Rights: Human and Animal Rights in the Anthropocene (3/1/23).

Find out more

Kim V. Goldsmith was commissioned by Dubbo Regional Council in partnership with Orana Arts to be part of the Regional Futures project. For more information about the Vaticinor project and resulting artwork, see Vaticinor.

The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story. 

The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. 

The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.

You can read Kim’s previous post for ClimateCultures, co-authored with Andrew Howe: Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands.

The books Kim quotes from are:

Kim V. Goldsmith

Kim V. Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.

Create the Future – Creatives in Residence for Climate Change

Actor, director and cultural entrepreneur, Giovanni Enrico Morassutti shared case studies of creatives in residence, of climate theatre and community engagement with an international conference, exploring strategies for encouraging cross-disciplinary projects to address the biodiversity and climate crisis.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


In November 2022 I was invited to give a presentation to ‘Create the Future’, the international conference on opportunities in the arts organised by the TransCultural Exchange at Boston’s Colleges of the Fenway, Massachusetts USA. I focused on Environmental, Climate Change, and Sustainable Art Practices.

I was invited to the conference by artist and curator Mary Sherman and my presentation was sponsored by the TransCultural Exchange’s Betsy Carpenter Foundation and the Rudi Punzo Memorial Fund.

Being part of the conference as a panelist along with American artist and curator Janeil Engelstad, cultural innovator Gordon Knox, and Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, enriched my understanding of artistic practices dealing with ecological and climate-related topics. During the panel, we focused on how creative residencies can provide artists with direct access to understanding climate change.

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence

I presented strategies for encouraging activities and opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects incorporating art, theatre, science, environmentalism, and business. I described a few case studies such as the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, a residency programme sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, and a think tank for sustainability in the arts and culture. I curated and organised this programme in 2018 together with Gudrun Filipska from the Arts Territory Exchange, a nonprofit organisation in the arts that is creating vast global opportunities for artists. Two international artists (Kelly Leonard and Beatrice Lopez) got the opportunity to stay at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, exploring their ecological art practices by sharing, after a year’s correspondence, their perspectives on sustainability.

Showing the setting for Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, a cultural centre and creative residency, in the Friulian countryside in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Photograph: Stefano Padovan
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Stefano Padovan

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence (AACIR) is a cultural centre, a creative residency, located within an agricultural centre situated in the Friulian countryside near the town of Sesto al Reghena in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Its aims are artistic research and experimentation in the area, information, and promotion of art and culture locally and internationally, promoting exchanges and collaborations between individual artists and groups of various nationalities and backgrounds. I founded Art Aia – Creatives In Residence to create a place for artistic production and research that focuses on the creative process and facilitates cultural exchange across borders. The main focus of our programmes is climate change art and theatre and sustainable art practices. I am glad to perform a leading role in the organisation, and this work represents my contribution to the Climate Justice movement.

AACIR also intends to raise awareness and call for action on issues related to global warming, climate change, and the risks that biodiversity is facing. During the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, for instance, Kelly and Beatrice also met Prince Guecello di Porcia, among other eco-entrepreneurs, and discussed the intertwining of sustainable business and art practices. Guecello is the owner of Cantina Principi di Porcia, a sustainable farm and vineyard that limits the use of environmental resources thanks to technological innovation.

While visiting his farm, the artists walked with a large filtering fabric in front of a large deposit of processed soy to emphasise the necessity of filtering and recycling. The fabric was then hung up in one of the art spaces of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, along with the residue of processed soy from the winery as a symbol of a sustainable future, creating the artwork ‘Filter’. The ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice has been an opportunity to create connections between people coming from different fields, creating a dialogue and opening up strategies for interdisciplinary sustainable practices.

Showing 'Filtering' and other artworks at Art Aia - Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez
‘Filtering’ and other artworks at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez

I was pleased by what Guecello said referring to Art Aia – Creatives In Residence during the Circular Economy forum in Milan in 2020, that its initiatives offer opportunities to discover a territory almost completely unknown to tourists from a unique perspective. He was very impressed by the work of Beatrice and Kelly, especially by their capacity to express the concept of sustainability through their artworks. About the local environment, Kelly Leonard was affected by the verdancy of the area surrounding AACIR. She said: “I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable…”

Showing hay bales in the countryside near Art Aia - Creatives in Residence, Italy. Photograph: Clara Filipelli
Hay bales in the countryside. Photograph: Clara Filipelli

Climate Change Theatre Action

The other case study I dispensed in Boston was based on climate change theatre. I participated in Climate Change Theatre Action 2021, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations climate change COP meetings.

I contacted the prominent Italian environmental association Legambiente to collaborate on the production of an event near the Tagliamento river, which is considered the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. I decided on such a location in respect of its authenticity. Its canals and water make me feel connected to nature and life. I think it is crucial to create occasions to share the delicate balance of Planet Earth that we have drastically violated in the last 50 years. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region where my art residency is located, Climate Change Theatre Action involved different partners, both public and private. The Regional Environmental Protection Agency sent one of their scientists to illustrate climate changes at local and global levels, reconnecting what is happening in the territory to phenomena on a global scale: their causes, effects, and possible actions to limit and cope with climate change. The municipality of Morsano al Tagliamento hosted part of the conference in the historical landmark of an old furnace.

To produce the event, I launched grassroots fundraising to connect with the region and foster community involvement. The first part of the event had the character of an informational meeting for citizens. Several local artists took part, such as Silvia Braida. And Edoardo Marcon, owner of the company La Casa del Sole, explained how photovoltaic panels work and provided a solar power station to give clean energy during the event.

For Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento, as a theater director, I presented the play When, written by playwright Wren Brian. We rehearsed the play at AACIR, where actresses Viviana Piccolo and Clelia DelPonte could focus on its environmental message. I decided to direct this play because of its universal meaning to reconnect with nature, to re-establish a connection with Mother Earth.

In the production, I also added some recordings of memorable speeches delivered by young activists including Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki — also known as “The Little Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I was moved by their courage and spontaneity and I thought that such recordings could express a sense of urgency and be a good addition to the composition of the play. I discussed my creative choice with Wren Brian, and not only did she like the idea but, as a Canadian living in Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of Anishinaabe people, she also suggested I do some research on Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe Indigenous rights advocate from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. I was impressed by Autumn Peltier’s activism on the issue of water protection, and since the play was staged by the river, I decided to include part of her speech as well.

Showing the Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia, for Climate Change Theatre 2021 at Art Aia - Creatives in Residence. Photograph: Francesco Simoni
The Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Photograph: Francesco Simoni

Our team installed a climate ribbon — inspired by The Climate Ribbon project that started in New York City at the 2014 People’s Climate March — which featured a large tree where anyone who wished to do so was able to express, by writing on a ribbon, their thoughts on what they love and what they fear losing due to climate change. Also, in Friuli, by hanging ribbons on the tree, each participant expressed their solidarity and will to fight against climate chaos.

Together with the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, we also created an online questionnaire where people could reveal anonymously their fears about the climate crisis. The phrases collected online, such as “the sound of the wind blowing in the trees” or “the snow”, were transcribed on ribbons and displayed during Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento.

My effort is to strengthen the ecological component of AACIR through further cultural and artistic initiatives and through the restoration of some spaces to be repurposed for artistic practices in harmony with the natural environment of the territory. I am glad that Art Aia – Creatives In Residence is recognised abroad. Being invited as a speaker to the Transcultural Exchange Conference in Boston and tapping into their network of artists, curators, residency directors, grantmakers and international arts professionals — as well as judging the work of other artists in the portfolio of review sessions — all expanded my horizons.

I believe a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of climate change can raise awareness and increase solidarity among different partners. These projects created a kind of connection between people that led to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, and shared cultural experiences, seeing art as a vehicle for understanding environmental issues, and better reflecting on practical solutions to prevent the climate crisis and to foster sustainability.


Find out more

Create the Future was TransCultural Exchange’s 2022 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts USA from 4th – 6th November 2022. TransCultural Exchange’s mission is to foster a greater understanding of world cultures. They do this through large-scale, global art projects, cultural exchanges and educational programming.

Explore the residencies and other activities of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, an international art residency for artistic production and research that combines art, environmental sustainability and ecotherapy practices. AACIR focuses on the development of the creative process, facilitating cultural exchange across borders. It is located near the Comune of Sesto al Reghena in the north-eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

You can watch the short and powerful speech that 12-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki from British Columbia, Canada gave to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at Before Greta, there was Severn, the B.C. girl who silenced the world in the Vancouver Sun (26/9/19). And you can read an interview with Autumn Peltier, who is the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner, explaining how Indigenous communities in Canada are fighting for their right to safe, clean drinking water in Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights from CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. 

You can read about Wren Brian’s play Whencommissioned for Climate Change Theatre 2021 and performed in six countries, including Italy — at her website, where you can also hear a short audio from a performance.

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

An actor, director, cultural entrepreneur, founder of Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, inviting communities to take action on the climate emergency.

Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Update January 2023: Thanks to the comment posted below by ClimateCultures visitor Peter Collins, we became aware of the work of Escaping Agharta, and Avery Dart’s track Shifting Baseline Syndrome in particular. “The goal of Escaping Aghartha is to educate people about specific examples of ongoing destruction in the biological world, using extreme music as an educational tool. Avery, a biologist, started Escaping Aghartha as an experimental solo project. Now Escaping Aghartha has started to feature skilled musicians on some releases.”

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher specialising in EU Environmental Law, whose PhD project addresses how the EU ‘governs’ light pollution and who mobilizes for this to change.