Attending to Muse & Nature in Lockdown

Artist Hanien Conradie shares the impulse and process behind a Covid19-lockdown collaboration that brings together image and text; and how, in a period of human silence, her muse and the natural world seemed to work in similar ways.


2,170 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes + gallery


What does it take for distracted creatives to surrender to the cries of their muse’s desires? For some it is simple, they hear, they listen and they translate through making. But some of us academically trained artists scold the muse for her infantile ideas, her need to play and her seemingly inconsistent barrage of desires. And then there are some of us who ignore her voice year after year…

In my practice I work in locally found natural pigments and burnt plant material as part of an expression of climate change and my concern with loss as we head toward a Sixth Mass Extinction. The global ecological anguish and my personal heartache inform the colour palette of my work: earthy ochres and monochromatic black paintings. Black, as a colour of grieving in the West, is also a colour that represents infinite creative potential and has become more and more prominent in my films, my ritual work and my paintings.

Human silence & other voices

As the severe restrictions of the Covid19 lockdown isolated South Africans in their homes, I considered what artworks I could make from a small desk in my bedroom. For quite a few years I have been an active environmental voice, calling for a change in the way we relate to the natural world. Suddenly, because of the virus, the Earth gained respite from our feverish pursuit of money; our disregard for the effect we have on the rest of the natural world. At the same time, everyone became quiet and introspective and the sounds of the natural world became more apparent than before; and people noticed. It seemed to me that the Covid19 lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for humanity to reconsider the way we live. For the moment it felt like my quest for change was interceded by an outer manifestation that was so severe that it forced us to adjust our habits naturally.

Seeking the muse: Showing image 25 from Hanien Conradie's 40 DAYS series
40 DAYS – image 15
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

Within the human silence of the lockdown, the voice of my muse became more insistent than before. I realized that the workings of my muse and the natural world were similar somehow and that less noise and distraction increased the intensity of my creative compulsions. The very uncertain and unprecedented circumstances swept away my normal, considered academic approach to my practice. I felt like breaking free from all my self-imposed limitations, obligations and preconceptions about what my art should be. I imagined that this is how artists might feel during times of war: the focus shifts from making work for others to making work because this is what I do to keep myself sane. I thus found myself surrendering to whatever my muse wanted to make.

I had recently been gifted a set of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolours with 24 colours in a beautiful transportable black box. The new paint had my muse salivating and my hunger to make small brightly coloured paintings seemed vast and insatiable. Before the lockdown, I had planned to make on-site landscape portraits with them. This idea was in keeping with my practice of visiting and relating to living natural landscapes, but traveling outside of my home was prohibited during lockdown.

In addition to the delicious paints, my partner inherited an equally delectable collection of National Geographic magazines from his father. Whenever I saw their bright yellow spines I remembered the remarkable pictures hidden inside and my childlike delight as I pored over the magnificent mysteries of our existence through their pages. Since my muse was completely uninterested in working with the only ‘living’ places I had access to — the interior of my home or my small garden — I decided to page through the magazines. I started to mark any images that thrilled me without pondering their meaning too much. I have used this technique in the past to access my subconscious feelings. It turned out that many of the images I paused on featured lone human figures in extreme natural surroundings; environments where the human body cannot survive naturally.

Surrendering to the muse: postcards from lockdown

My burning desire remained to make miniature paintings in my brand new luminous watercolours. I happened to have a few books of Fabriano Postcard watercolour paper available. There was something about the postcard format that appealed to me: the hint of possible travel and its capacity to carry messages beyond my forced incarceration. In the past, I have always used the actual place or my own photographs as references to paint from. Making use of magazine images was a departure from my usual way and alarmed me somewhat. Sailing this close to mere illustration had my academic fine-artist-self protesting: ‘I have a reputation to think of’ and ‘the Gallery will expect more consistency from you’… I ignored this voice and continued to surrender to what delighted and motivated my muse.

Thus, I commenced a ‘vigil’ dedicated to creating in isolation and produced one painting a day over many weeks. The human silence in the first three weeks of lockdown was heavenly: no traffic, no airplanes, and a communal energy of quiet withdrawal in the air. The comforting solitude punctuated by the occasional ringtone or electronic alert mingled with birdsong, a frog choir and the roaring river close by. This symphony of sound was the perfect context for delicate and detailed painting. I felt happy and at peace as my muse took me on an imaginative journey to some of the most extraordinary and far-off places on Earth.

Showing image 18 from Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40DAYS – image 18
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

These places, in relation to the inner places I discovered during this practice, made me consider what best-selling author and former monk, Thomas Moore, says in his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore suggests that as human beings we know a considerable amount about our external world and that, in comparison, we know very little (maybe too little) about our internal worlds. The images from the National Geographic magazines were mostly about discovering and exploring our external world — not only the Earth and space but also the microcosm. In hindsight, I came to understand that the images I selected were not random at all. They resonated with and expressed the internal states I experienced during lockdown. I became conscious of the inherent wisdom of my muse and subconscious mind.

I have since come to an understanding that periods of isolation are essential for humans in order to cultivate inner stillness. It is important to make time to listen deeply to one’s inner reality and to know its terrain well. In my experience this practice also sensitizes us to be more receptive to the ‘voice’ of the natural world.

When lockdown was finally over, I walked down to the river and it was as if I saw an old and dear friend again after a long time of absence. This little ecosystem on my doorstep was so much more magnificent than ever before. And I delighted in noticing that so much had healed and grown since I had last visited: in the vegetation and birdlife but also within me. This enchanting encounter resulted in another postcard series of 21 portraits of the river, titled ‘My Sanctuary’ (2020), which I made for a South African friend living in the UK.

40 nights / 40 DAYS

Allowing my muse to direct my creative process opened up a more spacious attitude to the flow of life in general and, more concretely, helped me to manifest my desires; in this case 40 small bright coloured paintings. I am now able to ‘hear’ and act on subtle prompts from my creative spirit. One of these ‘nudges’ that came to me was a dissatisfaction with the blankness of the backs of the postcards; where greetings and messages should be. Without text the 40 postcards from lockdown did not seem complete.

I recalled fashion-predictor Li Edelkoort’s podcast about the future of fashion design after Covid19. It was a brilliant talk containing some strange capitalistic approaches to the crisis that I found intriguing. I sent this off to friends and one of them, John Higgins, responded with a voice poem.

Showing image 7 Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40 DAYS – image 7
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

As a writer and academic, John has long been interested in the question of montage — in film, visual media and in writing. As lockdown took hold, John says he found himself, “like many people in the first phase of Covid19 and the ensuing lockdown … overwhelmed by the tsunami of media coverage … [and] at the same time, reading it obsessively as some form of comfort or distraction.” As something of an active response to the increasingly eerie situation, he began to assemble a number of montage texts from the various books, podcasts, news bulletins and online media available within his lockdown environment.

From the talk by Edelkoort, John selected key sentences and put them together in a montage that revealed the underlying philosophical questions in a very humorous way. I sent him a picture of one of my postcard paintings in response. The combination of the text and the picture revealed a fascinating new meaning, which was a delight to both of us. And, unashamedly, I found my muse asking John to join the project.

Thus two parallel projects commenced, each serving as an antidote to calm our anxiety during uncertain times. John created 40 texts and I painted 40 images, independently from each other. Each project maintains a distinct identity when seen in isolation. In my process I selected images from National Geographic magazines, painted them, and — together as a montage — they revealed something about my inner world during this time. One could say that the 40 paintings are reliant on each other to create the meaning (or full picture) of my exploration. John in turn brought together, and set against each other, fragments of national and international news coverage and commentary with other varied readings from his day; also illuminating his questions and thoughts in relation to the pandemic. The 40 texts John crafted can be read separately but are more potent as one long text that leaves one with a sense of the strangeness of the lockdown experience.

Once we completed our separate projects we carefully paired the texts with the paintings. This process took some time, but eventually we settled on some intriguing combinations: some that were easy to understand, and others that created discomfort and ambiguity.

40DAYS-003 image © Hanien Conradie 2020
« of 24 »

Since the images were painted on blank postcards, we decided to incorporate the text as part of each piece. On the reverse of the cards (where address and message are normally written), I give thanks to my inspiration by referencing the National Geographic ‘address’ of the image: the article title, edition, page number and the photographer. In the ‘message’ section of the postcard I ‘performed’ John’s text by transcribing them by hand. The final artwork is thus double-sided and consists of 40 painted images each with its own message on the back.

Because of the double-sided nature of the final work, it was difficult to display the text and painting simultaneously. To solve this, John and I created a printed book titled 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. Here we present the text and image together at a glance. This is when what we describe as a ‘third work’ emerges through the viewer, who makes associations and assumptions based on the information gathered from both sources. One could say that the viewer becomes the creator in this ‘third work’.

Our short film presented here, is another attempt to bring this third meaning to life.

40 nights/40 DAYS is a playful project about serious things. We hope it will both delight and provide some solace in these extraordinary times.


Find out more

You can see a different selection from Hanien’s postcard collaboration with John in her contribution to our Quarantine Connection series from April-June 2020. Hanien Conradie: 40 nights / 40 DAYS appeared on Day 36. All 40 images that Hanien used for the series are displayed at her website, and the original paintings are available from the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. Contact ctgallery@everard.co.za for a portfolio.

Also available for purchase is the hardcover book, 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. This can be ordered from Hanien at hanienconradie@gmail.com.

You can listen to the Business of Fashion podcast (27/3/20) featuring futurist Li Edelkoort, which triggered Hanien’s collaboration with John Higgins. The sources from which John took the textual fragments included media coverage from radio, television, and online sources such as Daily Maverick, The Guardian, the Washington Post and the New York Times; Li Edelkoort’s Business of Fashion podcast; and (dusted off and taken down from the bookshelves) Sir Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (T. Noble: London 1845); Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1956); John Ruskin’s Modern Painters Volume 1 (Dent: London 1935); John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (George Allen: London 1906).

Hanien Conradie
Hanien Conradie
A fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13

Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.


1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.

Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.

Washed downstream

My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.

Slipware pottery fragment from the River Severn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?

Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen

I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.

Artefacts 6×6
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Tyre mountain
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Artefact 26
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.

Showing a bitumen tanker dumped in woods
Tanker in the wood
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.

Showing bitumen spill from a tanker
Tanker
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Showing a black pools of bitumen, its 'skin' intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.

In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.

Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures

The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.

Acorn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.

The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.

Witness, Coalbrookdale Oak: oak gall ink on paper
Image: Andrew Howe © 2020

Find out more

You can explore Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, and the Marches Mosses of which it is a part, at The Meres and Mosses site. And you can find out more about Andrew’s own work with the Mosses and Marshes project at Of the Mosses. including an introduction to the site: Tracing Human history across the Moss.

Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”

You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.
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Owned by the Wood in Winter

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes 


Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.

“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”

Showing the cover of 'The Wood in Winter'
The Wood in Winter’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Cover illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,”  a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

An Ice Age in miniature

In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”

Showing robins and holly in winter
Robins and Holly
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”

‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’

Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.

Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.

“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”

Showing a vixen in winter
The Vixen
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

Find out more

The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).

You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.

Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.

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