Writer Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.
710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.
In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.
An Arctic outpost
After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.
As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.
First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.
Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.
I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.
When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.
In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.
It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.
At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.
Find out more
With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.
Artist Hanien Conradie discusses a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with Devon’s River Dart and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge. Work that seeks more reciprocal relationships with the natural world.
2,450 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes + 3 minutes video
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe: I met Hanien Conradie when she gave a presentation at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium at Dartington Hall in Devon, in June 2018. Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, recounted the unique relationship she had built with the clay of the Hartebees River in Worcester, South Africa: “the same clay my mother played with as a child.” Her talk also featured a premiere of a film made with fellow artist, Margaret LeJeune, showing Hanien’s performance in the Dart, the local river at Dartington, during both artists’ residencies there just before Liquidscapes.
This post, which begins with that film, Dart, is based on an email conversation we had in September 2019, after Hanien had been able to share the film following its premiere in South Africa.
Your film has three phases, for me: the reading of Eugene Marais’s poem Diep Rivier in the original Afrikaans; the rereading of it in English; and the silence in between. For an English-only viewer, the unknowability of the original reading is powerful, and forces me to hear the striking beauty of the sound of the words alone, in your voice. What for you is the value of the silence between the two languages?
The performance in the river began as I wrote the Afrikaans version of the poem onto the river’s surface. It was a way to introduce my ancestry and me to the river. What happened in that moment was that I became very emotional.
Firstly, I had just come from a severe drought in Cape Town where we had a daily ration of 50 litres of water. Being in such an expanse of water after the scarcity was an overwhelming relief.
Secondly, I had a painful ancestral history with England. The British Empire and Afrikaners fought each other between 1899 and 1902 during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers fought a guerrilla war and the men gathered their supplies from Afrikaner homesteads and farms. As part of what was referred to as the ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the British army burnt down Afrikaner farms, killed their livestock and put the surviving women and children in concentration camps. About 30,000 Afrikaners died of exposure, starvation and disease in these camps. Most of the dead were children. As a child born about 70 years later, I heard many of the elderly people speaking in bitter ways about the British. The rift between English and Afrikaner South Africans could still be felt as children from both cultures harassed each other with hate speech during my years of schooling.
I studied in English, had made many English friends and my life partner is British. I believed that this history was not really a part of my personal pain anymore. However when I entered this English river and spoke this very old Afrikaans poem (written about 10 years after the war), I was surprised to find myself sobbing. In the water of this dark river pain older than my life years surfaced and came to a place of peace; the river and I let all the hatred flow to the ocean and I allowed love to be born again.
I did not plan the silence between the two languages consciously, but in hindsight I believe it communicates a transformation that happened within me and hopefully is still rippling out into the world I live in. The silence together with the rippling effect that I, a mere speck, have on the environment, speaks volumes about the power of one individual to heal communal pain.
Joyful dance with the river
The film itself, of course, is continuous and, superficially, seems unchanged across the three different phases. But the drone pulls out further overhead, and then comes back in, and your movements on the water — the drawing on its surface — change also. Our view of you — in close up in the water and then in long shot with the water and then closing in again — is always literally an overview, from a different plane (place) to your own experience in and with the water. That’s only possible through collaboration with another artist. Was that viewpoint, that collaboration, always intended for your work here? Or did it emerge from a process of working with the river beforehand?
You are quite right to point out that the experience of the viewer and my experience in the river is substantially different. That is why this film is a full collaboration between the American artist, Margaret LeJeune, and myself. She managed to capture the poetry of the moment in a meaningful way; which is an artwork and skill in itself.
After I performed the ritual of writing the poem in the water I felt light and elated, and in a powerful but prayerful mode. I started beating and creating circles on the surface of the water. I lost my sense of self in this joyful dance with the river. Thus I failed to notice Margaret, who was quietly observing me from the river’s bank. As I emerged from the river she requested to film me with her drone. So, the next day we came back to the river and I re-enacted my ritual.
The beauty of our collaboration was there was very little planning, discussion or editing to this documentation. We had a subtle attunement to each other that enabled the transmission of the feeling of the ritual to the viewer. Margaret and I previously discussed our overwhelming nostalgia toward the European natural world. We both come from places that were colonised by our European ancestors. I sensed that we both struggle with feelings of displacement, colonial guilt and a search for belonging. It was Margaret who saw something that I as the performer couldn’t see: the far-reaching ripples I was creating. It was through her poetic perspective that the documentation of the performance obtained its power.
A loss of place
You originally showed the film at the Liquidscapes symposium very soon after making it, and your talk there focused on an experience revisiting a river and farm with your mother, taking her back to her childhood home. Your experiences of that river up to then were through her memories, which ‘became mythological stories’, but her return to the farm and the river with you proved to be depressing. It seems to have been an experience of erasure — of the life of the land and of the river, and even of the water’s sound that had been so strong in your mother’s experience and memory. Maybe even of memory itself, as something pure. It seems that the land’s natural state — and then its later much-altered state, of your mother’s experience — was ephemeral, whereas in your film it is your signature on the river, your drawing in it, which is ephemeral, although deep.
My talk at Liquidscapes told the story of the damaged South African river from the perspective of a person of a hybridised European culture (Afrikaans culture). I weave a tale out of observations in the current natural world and past memories in an attempt to show the inextricable connection between nature and culture; how nature reflects culture and how a dislocated culture can create a loss of place.
The nationalist Afrikaner culture of my mother’s childhood had the reputation that it represented people of the soil; ‘boere’ (farmers) who loved nature as pastoralists. On closer inspection however, I realised that these memories of my mother’s were created within a context where the European culture and its crops were imposed onto the indigenous environment. This lack of understanding of the functioning of indigenous natural ecosystems has resulted in tremendous ecological damage and loss of indigenous fauna, flora, cultural knowledge systems and the loss of the river that once roared through the land. Like the sound of the river, my mother’s childhood culture has disappeared.
Today Afrikaner culture is in a process of mutation to an unknown end. The question I sit with is how do I enable restoration and healing to these damaged places? How do I find another way to relate to the natural world that is reciprocal; that understands human beings as an aspect of this living community of beings?
My ritual in the River Dart was an attempt to find an answer for this new way of relating. The writer of the poem, Eugene Marais, had a very unique way of relating to the natural world. As a fellow Afrikaner, I call on his wisdom through reciting his words.
So yes, there is something ephemeral in my experiences with both of these rivers. And perhaps that is invoked by the nature of rivers as signifiers of the passing of time. Even though my ‘drawings’ on the surface of the river are ephemeral, their impact reverberates through my life as I actively work on transforming my personal culture to meet the natural world in a very different way to my ancestors. There is thus something that is infinitely rippling out from these ephemeral experiences that I hope will lead to transformation.
The response of the natural world
You wrote in your blog post retelling your encounter with the Breede River, “My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss.” There you did this by meeting with local people and experts who could help you see what the natural and indigenous state of the river might have been, before European settlement. Working later on the Dart, was there also a feeling of a landscape of loss? I wonder how that place seemed to you as a new visitor and as you immersed yourself in it and in the work?
In my work with places where loss and damage is so severe that nothing seems to remain that holds the ancient knowledge of the place, I try work with the elements that are present such as the earth of the dry river or in this case the water of the river. When I encountered the River Dart, I was initially completely seduced by the expanse of water because it was lacking in the place I came from. As I got to know it better and read its history I realised that it is suffering its own losses and damage. If we as humans can start seeing bodies of water as entities with their own life and rights, I think these problems can be solved.
Similarly to my experience with the clay of the dry river, I found through relating to the River Dart, a great generosity coming from the natural world. I would have thought that like humans, the natural world would shut itself down and stop communicating with those who harm it. It has however been my experience that by earnestly and as honestly as possible communicating with natural entities such as rivers, I have gained much insight, humility and healing.
In your account of working with the Breede and its clay, you found it did not behave as you expected. Was this also true in the Dart?
I remember when I first entered the River Dart I sat quietly in the water looking out over the landscape and I listened attentively to ‘hear’ the river speak. After being still for a substantial time, the sceptic in me said ‘this river is not going to relate to you, you are wasting your time.’ Discouraged, I turned my gaze down to my body that was half-submerged in the water. I noticed that the silt of the river had settled like dust on my skin, tracing every hair and the curve of my body; I noticed that the little minnows were nibbling the skin of my feet. I was reminded again, that we are inextricably part of nature; that the separatist way we think about the natural world is what causes our incapacity to ‘hear’.
In terms of my performance, the idea was to capture the white foam lines made through ‘drawing’ with sticks on the surface of the dark black water. It was only because we had the overhead perspective of the drone that we could see the immense impact of my ‘drawings’ as they rippled out into a sphere far greater than the speck that was my body. Again, I was surprised with the far more complex outcome of my simple initial intention. Similarly to the experience with the river clay, I offered some of my energy and the natural world responded with a depth of wisdom I couldn’t have fathomed on my own.
Find out more
Dart, the film Hanien and Margaret LeJeune created in the River Dart, was first shown at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in June 2018, following their residencies with the River Dart for The Ephemeral River, a Global Nomadic Art Project sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Art and The Natural World (CCANW) and Science Walden / UNIST. The film was then shown as part of Raaswater (‘Raging Waters’), Hanien’s exhibition at Circa Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2019.
You can read a precis of Hanien’s paper to the Liquidscapes symposium at her blog post The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River. Here, she describes her work in the clay of the Breede River Valley following her visit to ‘Raaswater’ there with her mother, and the inspiration she takes from the writing of deep ecologist and ecophilosopher Arne Naess on ideas of place.
You can also explore the work of American artist Margaret LeJeune, including Evidence of the Dart, a selection of images Margaret created during her own residency at The Ephemeral River. “Our goal was to create work inspired by notions of ephemerality and the landscape of the River Dart.”
Eugène Nielen Marais (1871-36) was an innovative Afrikaans writer who had studied medicine and law and later investigated nature in the Waterberg area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. You can explore some of his poetry in Afrikaans (and some translations into English) at Poem Hunter.
Liquidscapes, a book of essays, poetry and images reflecting the Liquidscapes international symposium at Dartington Hall in June 2018 is published by art.earth, edited by Richard Povall. The book includes Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River.
Artist Linda Gordon was invited to lead a land art workshop using natural materials at Extinction Rebellion’s Rising Tide Festival in North Devon. She describes an experience of co-operation and natural harmony: “In other words, a sane community.”
1,940 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
The Rebel Rising, Rising Tide weekend — organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest, at Tapeley Park, North Devon — was characterised by fun and relaxation, underpinned by some important and serious talks: some covering aspects of the gathering climate and ecological crisis we are facing; others giving guidance on how best to bring about change, and on the role of XR. There was some great music throughout, both live and recorded — and a huge range of relaxing activities: family yoga, meditation, massage… And a number of craft workshops and nature-related activities, for example, forest school bushcraft, permaculture and nature and forest therapy.
A range of authoritative speakers were on hand to give expert talks, including Jozette Kimba of Stop Ecocide — an organisation committed to getting the law changed, and making large-scale destruction of our natural environment a crime. MEP Molly Scott Cato spoke about the Green Party and Green economics, and how this aimed to address social and economic inequalities around the world. Other talks and workshops covered practical information and strategies that the audience could, if they wished, put into action: for instance, ‘How to speak with the Media and present yourself as a spokesperson’.
A gathering place
I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect, never having attended an XR event before, but as the weekend drew nearer, it slowly dawned on me that there was going to be A LOT of people, and A LOT would be going on.
I stepped out of the car high up in the grassy field of Tapeley Park and gazed out over the wide expanse of gentle green Devon fields, bordered with trees, and down to the quiet Torridge Estuary below. Soft blue sky, wisps of white cloud, warm breeze, sunshine. Exploring and preparing for the workshop, pacing and fretting: ‘Where do I find more contrasting and varied materials? Shall I take people for a walk? How many will turn up? five or 55? What age groups? And does anybody really want to hear my memorised notes on ‘how trees support our lives’? Meanwhile, my friend and helper, Jann went off to a talk on fossil fuels and came back looking worried and concerned.
Of course, I knew perfectly well at the back of my mind that everything relating to the workshop would work out brilliantly, once I relinquished control — and of course, it did. Participants dived into making a beautiful mandala artwork and nobody needed to hear from the likes of me how to connect with the Earth!
Throughout the rest of the day, and all Sunday, people stopped by to take photos, or to add to the work with leaves, grasses, cones and flowers. The intention was to use the mandala as a gathering place for starting off the procession at the closing ceremony the next evening.
I relaxed in the peaceful atmosphere of congenial company, the spacious surroundings of Tapeley Park, and the mild, tranquil weather. At the Mandala art site faint scents of barbequed vegetables reached my nostrils. A few yards away, at the pop-up Green Library, a group of children sprawled on the grass under its awning, playing a board game. A few adults were relaxing in chairs, reading magazines, whilst another couple played at a small Subbuteo table.
A rising tide
On Sunday I took in a couple of talks. I listened to ‘Social Justice and the Green Movement’ by Dr Ed Atkins, from the University of Bristol, who spoke of the Green New Deal, with its aim of justice and fairness for all — that is, a complete restructuring and reform of our economic system, and urgent action to address the climate crisis we are all facing.
He gave some examples of appalling social and environmental abuses in other parts of the world, particularly relating to our society’s massive demand for sand in order to build our towns and cities — leading to very lucrative and often criminal sand extraction enterprises in faraway countries.
Closer to home, in the light of what we all know — that our economy is driven by the richest sector of society — he spoke of the need to keep social discussion going: to protect the vulnerable, to respect workers’ rights and the right to work. I very much liked that on inviting questions at the end of his talk, he was also able to give people helpful tips on their individual local or family concerns.
I must have been in a geological mood that day, for the second talk I chose was titled ‘Resource Exploitation and General Climate Q&A’ by Professor Jon Blundy, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. He talked of the role of earth scientists in addressing and resolving current climate and environmental problems.
Professor Blundy, an expert in the processes of magma beneath the earth’s crust, began by explaining the creation of minerals in the magma, then went on to discuss the unfettered extraction of copper, iron, coal and rare earths by unscrupulous mining companies in various countries. He gave examples of the environmental damage and human suffering caused by such activities.
He also explained the vital importance of copper as a conductor in electrical systems and how it has the potential for massively reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, when it comes to extracting materials of great value for whatever reason, an increase in scale can cause devastation to local populations around the mining areas and add to the already known global effects of climate change.
I must admit, I was previously fairly ignorant of much of what I heard from these two speakers, and the distressing implications of it all, but now I am glad that I am more aware of it.
Their observations and information struck me of great importance to life as we know it, drawing our attention to social and environmental suffering and injustices around the world; in encouraging others to take action on some of these issues (for instance, speaking at XR events), and in pointing the way towards possible solutions to some of the problems. And certainly we are going to need to make radical changes in our economic structures and industrial practices if we are going to avert what looks like rapidly approaching disaster for many species, including our own.
However, I doubt that science alone, although a wonderful tool, will necessarily resolve all our social and ecological ills. It all depends upon how the science is used. My current personal view is that time is indeed running out. Unless we humans can wake up fast to the realisation that life is all one, and we are all interdependent — then things don’t look too good.
A sane community
Later, I had a good look around the area, at the many stalls and signs of earlier activity. I wandered among the people quietly relaxing on the grass in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. And I spent some time in the huge marquee enjoying music and singing by the Southwest based female trio, Boudicca’s Child.
Back at the Mandala, where my workshop had been held, and which by now had accumulated further additions of flowers and woodland materials, I met with the four people who would be leading the Closing Ceremony. They represented the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Instead of gathering everyone together around the mandala as originally planned, they decided to prepare themselves around it, with a quiet ‘smudging’ ritual. Smudging is a method of purifying and cleansing one’s energy with smouldering sage smoke, practised by some North American Indian tribes and also by some other cultures. I believe sage smoke has been found by science to have beneficial effects on our stress levels. It certainly has a very pleasant scent!
Shortly before 5pm people from all over the Park gathered together in the high open field, ready to walk in procession to an area of woodland — to an ancient oak tree, reputed to be 1,000 years old, where the ceremony was to be held.
Perhaps the most moving part of the festival for me, was walking with several hundred others through the trees, slowly and in silence (apart from a single repeating drumbeat) — with the late afternoon sunlight dancing off the leafy canopy and shining through the soft colours of the XR flags.
An uninvited thought flitted through my mind: ‘All this is what we stand to lose’.
Then followed the solemn moment, around the ancient oak, when we all pledged to love and care for the Earth to the very best of our ability.
A slow quiet walk back to the place where we had started, and then I was back again to the mandala, to begin the process of clearing everything away. It was necessary to leave the site as we had found it, as Tapeley Park would be open to the general public the following morning. I returned the woodland material to the woods, and someone took the bunch of flowers she had contributed, and went to place them under the ancient oak tree.
People were beginning to leave now, to catch trains and buses or drive long distances home. But many stayed on to enjoy a Great Feast and music, which brought the Rising Tide Festival to a close.
Being tired and a little overwhelmed with new thoughts and experiences, I didn’t stay for this. However, I did take a large bag of tin cans home to recycle! This was a successful and very well organised event, run on mutual goodwill, with volunteers working on everything from cooking, manning the carpark and the forest of tents, running the information post and the sound system, organising the clearing up and dismantling stuff at the end, the laying on of buses to meet trains from Barnstaple station, to the massive amount of background organisation that must have been needed beforehand. I felt a comfortable and mutually supportive balance between the many relaxing, earth-related activities and the serious nature of the talks and educational workshops. Both are important, I think, in strengthening the XR movement in its purpose as a protest movement committed to compelling governments to act effectively on climate and ecological turmoil. Indeed, one of the workshops offered was on staying calm, centred and connected with oneself and others, at XR Actions.
I can’t speak for others, but it seemed to me the atmosphere throughout the weekend was one of co-operation and trust, and a natural harmony with the immediate surroundings — in other words, a sane community. I was pleased to be one of this large number of people, drawn together largely by sadness at the state of our world, and a willingness to put things right and act in whatever non-violent way required.
Find out more
The Rising Tide Festival was held from 6th to 8th September at Tapeley Park, North Devon, and was organised and hosted by Extinction Rebellion Southwest. For a list of the workshops and talks, see XR Festivals: Devon, England. You can also find information on the local XR group at xrfrome.org
Stop Ecocide is run by Ecological Defence Integrity (EDI), a small UK non-profit founded by the late Polly Higgins with a team of international criminal lawyers, diplomats and evidence experts working to advance a law of ecocide at the International Criminal Court.
Writer and photographer Mike Hembury spent a week on an Inner Hebridean sailing trip as part of Sail Britain’s multidisciplinary Coastline Project. He recalls this small group’s ecological encounters and shares poems and photographs they inspired in him.
2,510 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes
The West Coast of Scotland offers some of the most spectacular seascapes to be found anywhere in the British Isles. So I was particularly excited to be given the chance to join in with Sail Britain’s Coastline Project for a week in May. Part oceanographic research project, part artist’s residency, part hands-on experience for budding and seasoned sailors alike, the Coastline Project provides a unique way of coming to grips with some of the ecological issues facing Britain’s marine environment, in a manner that is interdisciplinary, unconventional and infused with an all-pervasive love of the sea.
Our focus for the week was to be plastic pollution, and our itinerary was to be counter-clockwise around Mull, taking in the Inner Hebrides islands of Coll, Lunga, Ulva and Staffa along the way, together with a host of hidden and sometimes nigh-on inaccessible anchorages.
My own personal focus on our little expedition was threefold: I had set myself the task of producing a poetic and photographic record of the journey, and was keen to receive some up-to-date and first-hand information on the current ecological plight of Britain’s Atlantic shores. On top of that, for some time now I had been looking out for an opportunity to improve my sailing skills in tidal waters, and the West Coast of Scotland was high on my list.
I joined up with the Alcuin — a Westerly Oceanranger 38 — on May 18th in the bustling port town of Oban, where I was greeted by our skipper, and Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, an easy-going and affable chap in his mid-thirties, who would probably not look out of place on a late 19th-century British polar expedition.
We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Here in Oban.
— from Oban
After introductions to the rest of the crew — a postgraduate researcher in fluid dynamics from Cambridge, a married couple with a passion for sailing and the environment, and the wandering CEO of a bespoke mapmaking company — we left immediately for our first anchorage, on the western side of the Island of Kerrera, just out of sight of Oban harbour.
Rituals and realisation
Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
Bladder, spiral, channel
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.
— from Kerrera
Next morning we rendezvoused with Janie and Russ, two local plastic pollution activists. They guided us to a beach on Kerrera’s northern headland, and we began what would become a daily ritual: beach-cleaning. We combed the high-water line, extracting netting, stretches of rope and pieces of plastic packaging out from among the wracks slowly drying in the weak northern sun.
Further up the shore, tufts of blue plastic seemed to grow among the grass, remnants of seemingly ubiquitous plastic rope that had become embedded in the soil. After an hour or so, we gathered together to view and sift through our findings — buckets and buckets of detritus, in many different shapes and forms. Our guide Janie was heartened. Apparently this was a ‘good’ haul. Good, as in relatively small. By contrast, those of us who are new to the game were flabbergasted by the amount of non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary waste that we had just dug out of a seemingly pristine shoreline.
It’s a story that was repeated throughout our week with the Coastline Project: stunningly beautiful islands, inlets and lochs, all far away from the nearest human habitation, but not one of them unaffected by the careless wastefulness of the Anthropocene. The wild shorelines of Western Scotland are saturated in plastic, suffocating in a stream of waste that can only be cured by turning it off at the source.
A lot of the debris that we found could easily be traced to the local fishing industry, and more specifically, to fish farms. Such finds included thirty-foot pieces of bright blue tubing, and grey flotation containers as large as a fridge. But it was something else — a much smaller find — that started to bring fish farming into the focus of my attention during the course of the trip.
Perhaps subliminally at first, I had started to notice that there are unusual numbers of dead crabs on Scottish beaches. Having grown up on the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I know that it’s common enough to find a dead crab or two, belly-up on the beach. But this wasn’t one or two. By the time we had arrived at the windswept and wonderful island of Ulva — the Wolf Island — the evidence was starting to pile up. Something seemed to be seriously wrong here.
Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss.
— from On Ulva
I had no explanation at the time, but I took pictures of what I found, pictures that prompted me, back on dry land, to do a little research into possible causes of crab fatalities.
One cause often cited is lack of oxygen in the water, due for example to algal blooms or sudden changes in temperature.
Other possible causes are the toxic effects of fish farming. Salmon farms, it seems, use chemicals such as teflubenzuron to combat the infestations of sea lice that literally eat the tightly-packed fish alive. Sea lice are crustaceans. The chemicals used to kill them do not differentiate between the various types of crustacean that live in the ocean, and are equally toxic to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.
The beach at Ulva, with the striking numbers of dead crabs, was the site of two now-defunct fish farms, with two more active farms still in operation nearby. More than enough evidence, in my mind, for poisoning to be a plausible cause of death.
Of course, I am not a marine biologist, so ultimately I can do little more than speculate on issues of crustacean fatalities and fish farm toxicity.
Yet this is precisely where multidisciplinary projects such as Sail Britain are turning into an invaluable resource for marine ecology. Although our crew was sadly not equipped to deal with my belated findings, I did pass the information on to Oliver, who promised to incorporate fish farming more closely into his ecological itinerary. And my hope is that a member of some future crew, or interested marine biologist, will feel inclined to pick up where my own photographic and poetic efforts fall short.
Even so, my own limited research into the subject has shown me that the fish farming industry is not only highly unsustainable, but also massively toxic to the marine environment within which it operates.
Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
Perhaps With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Is a pretty weak force now
In the greater scheme of things.
— from The Corrie Breàchain
Our week of sailing around Mull was, coincidentally, the week in which over 8 million farmed salmon were killed by algal blooms in Norway. This followed a similar incident in Loch Fyne earlier in the year, in which ‘hundreds of tonnes’ of dead fish had to be removed from farms.
The waste from fish farms coats the seabed with a poisonous sludge that extinguishes all life below it — one of the reasons perhaps why the Scottish government is now considering the approval of deep-sea ‘superfarms’, in the hope that the combination of depth and currents will help dilute the waste before it hits the bottom.
On the other hand, one might be forgiven for assuming a more cynical motive: Out of sight, out of mind, anyone?
Salmon farms are also vectors for disease, and are having a hugely negative impact on wild salmon populations. And of course there is another, even more problematic aspect to keeping thousands, or even millions of fish together in a confined space, and that is that they need to be fed. And what they need to be fed on, largely, is fishmeal. That is to say, in order for beautifully packaged, and tastefully marketed Scottish salmon to arrive on the average fish eater’s plate, huge numbers of ‘lesser’ species — i.e. those not fit for human consumption — need to be industrially hoovered out of the sea. It has been estimated that nearly one-fifth of global sea fish catch is currently being used to produce fishmeal and oil for fish farms. One species particularly affected in the waters around Britain is the sandeel — tiny slivers of silver that also happen to be the favourite food of all manner of seabirds.
Which brings me to Lunga, part of a small chain of islands known as the Treshnish Isles. We cast anchor before Lunga with one particular purpose in mind: to catch a close-up view of the puffins that breed in underground burrows in the soft soil of the cliff tops. Puffins have no natural predators on the island but, nevertheless, their numbers are plummeting. On the Shetland Islands, for example, 33,000 puffins were recorded in the spring of 2000. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 570. And while environmental factors may be playing a role in the plight of the puffins, the decimation of their primary food source has to be high on the list of possible causes.
What can I say? Lunga, like so much of our trip, was a poignant reminder of the fragile beauty of the sea’s web of life. Our daily rituals of beach-cleaning, sailing, and witnessing the incredible natural heritage of the Inner Hebrides, had become familiarly, depressingly, marvellously, gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly,
Are we witnessing?
— from Lunga
Coastline project: our haul of pollution
To be honest, I had no idea what could come out of a trip such as this. As it was, I found the words pouring out of me, the sorrow welling up inside me, my heart and senses expanding as they always do when I’m near the sea. Whilst the others were exploring or pulling yet more rope out of the high-water wrack-line, I found myself staring at the patterns in the weed, or the dew on the grass, and feeling the need to preserve it all in some way, however inadequately.
Leaving Ulva in particular, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the unforgivably tragic consequences of what it was that we — humanity — have collectively unleashed.
As if in answer, that was the very moment when we were visited by a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, spiralling beneath the bow of our ship and leaping out of the water. Absolutely impossible to let depression and seeming futility win in such a moment! It’s certainly easy enough though, in these harrowing times, to let oneself be pulled into a focus on death and destruction. But how much more inspiring to consider the beauty of life, in all its exuberance, unbidden and joyful.
But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.
— from Return to Oban
In our brief week of exploring the wonders of the Scottish shores with the Coastline Project, we were struck repeatedly by the wild majesty of the scenery, the richness of the wildlife, even in the face of impending extinction, and the urgency of acting now, in order to turn the tide, and save what remains.
It’s not too late. But it will be soon, unless we start taking drastic action now.
For me personally, in addition to writing and participating in this autumn’s European-wide wave of environmental protests, I’m looking forward in particular to seeing my crewmates and skipper again in London in November, when Sail Britain will be organising a symposium and exhibition on the Coastline Project. My own contribution to the exhibition will be the series of photographs and poems that have emerged from that inspiring week in May. I am also hoping to publish both in book form — Sailing With Alcuin — if I can find a publisher brave enough to publish a photopoetic journal by a sailing environmentalist.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to Oliver Beardon and Sail Britain for their Coastline Project and the opportunity to take part. Ever since I was I child, I have been fascinated and awed by the sea, and thought I knew a thing or two about the state of the ocean. But in the space of a week, I had my love of the ocean renewed, and received fresh motivation to dedicating myself to saving the source of all life on our planet.
Find out more
Update: Mike has now published an online version of the Alcuin photos and poems on his website.
For more on the Coastline Project programme exploring the coasts of the British Isles, visit the Sail Britain website: “While the boat, our team, and the idea forms a common narrative, each stage is be crewed by a different group of people from as varied a background as possible. Along each stage these groups develop as a coherent team, something which sailing is a wonderful catalyst for, to explore the people, identity, history and ecological importance of the places they visit and to develop individual research and responses.” The symposium and exhibition Mike mentioned is the Sail Britain End of Year Showfrom 21st – 24th November, in London.
If you have suggestions for publishers for Mike’s photopoetry book of his expedition, Sailing With Alcuin, do email him at writing[at]mikehembury[dot]org
To follow up on some of the environmental issues Mike discusses, see these recent news stories in The Independent and The Guardian:
Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment. In this scholarly work, Rupert Read advocates an ecological approach to film-philosophy analysis, arguing that film can re-shape the viewer’s relationship to the environment and other living beings.
1,830 words: estimated reading time 7.5 minutes
It’s a real pleasure to engage with Rupert Read and this stimulating work – particularly as my previous knowledge of him was when he stood as the Green Party candidate for Cambridge, and more recently as an energetic advocate with Extinction Rebellion, where passions run politically high and our frustrations against climate inaction and political corruption are creating cultural shift.
In this new book, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, creativity and imagination are at the fore, coupled with the author’s strict academic discipline. The opening line sets the agenda wonderfully — “film is the great form of our time” — while the concluding lines from the final paragraph of the introduction get to the heart of his enquiry: “The real question may be: can films help wake us up in time? What have we learnt or could we learn [from these films], have we learnt enough; and can the learning be shared quickly and deeply enough?”
Read has selected a range of films to dissect — from Waltz with Bashir, Solaris, and Lord of the Rings, to Avatar — and touches many others, following strands and threads as he expands and deepens his theme.
The human journey
At a launch event for the book in Cambridge, he spoke of his life-long love of this medium, and mused on how best now to tell the younger generation about the existent and deepening climate crisis we are in: “through art you can get closer into the guts of a story.”
I resonate deeply with this last phrase, as for fifteen years I’ve attempted to dive into stories — mainly human, but always wrapped up in the theme of human/s within a particular landscape. I work principally through the genre of documentary, although with a background before that in theatre and the wonderful stories inherent in stagecraft. Finding the art in both the telling of the story, and the artfulness of the story itself, is always the issue to work on using lens-based media, coupled with the deep dive into the vast jigsaw of accumulated footage allowed in the editing room.
I haven’t yet met anyone who hasn’t loved Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (2001-03), featuring the great Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. Not having read the books when young, I came to the films fresh, with no expectations other than slight frowning at a big screen, big box office movie, against my preference for small arthouse indies.
Read goes right into the core of the power of the story and Tolkien / Jackson’s vision, interpreting it as “an exploratory allegory of serious mental suffering”; and yes, I can resonate with that. It is less about good and evil, more about the human journey, as those familiar with the ‘men’s work’ movement will know; in particular, Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), based on a German fairy tale, explores in myth the path to adulthood and fuller humanness that men must travel.
Read describes TheLord of the Rings as a “post-theological Buddhist world”, and as a call to go towards our demons (viz the right-wing governments of our time, Trump, the Brexit fiasco, and the oil companies and businesses that exploit this planet and all forms of life upon it). By facing them, we can then see them dissolve. But first we must go on the entire journey, as laid out within Lord of the Rings in a bigger mythological sense — leaving the Shire, into the heat, the battle, chasing the ring, and meeting Sauron — or the path of critical appraisal and engagement with the screen media oeuvre that Reed lays out within his book. And respond. And absorb. And re-feel the world.
My filmmaking was greatly enhanced by an eighteen month MA in Media at UWE Bristol, which balanced a light academic dusting with opportunities to explore our practice and to collaborate. My great joy was access to the archives of artists’ films that were the early meanderings in places: estuaries, and mountains framed in long slow shots and sudden effects, and the different ways of telling.
One of my favourite films remains the Inuit film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2001), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, which shifts rapidly through time and dimensions within the frozen lands and mythology of Northern Canada / Independent Nunavut. It revealed to me new ways of telling: old, ancient ways and ancient stories, but using this newer medium to tell them in modern ways, layered in time, space, and snow. I am looking forward to new Canadian-Haida release from director Gwaai Edenshaw, SGaawaay K’uuna(Edge of the Knife) (2018), which is based on a Haida myth about a man who, weakened by an accident at sea, is taken over by supernatural beings.
My personal recommendation for one of the most interesting makers working today — more on a theme of humans stranded within the time and space of a landscape than a directly ecological dilemma (although I’ll take this up in a review of his work at some later stage) is British artist Ben Rivers. Two Years at Sea (2001) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013) will both be seen as urgent films of our time — in years to come! In the Holocene, his current project (with Anocha Suwichakornpong), may well be the film we activist/artists get blown away by, due to its creative telling of predicament.
There is such a deep analysis and reflection within A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment that it is challenging to fully do it justice within a short review. In an early chapter that analyses both Waltz with Bashir (2008) and then Apocalypto (2006), Read’s dissection cuts deep, and these beautiful lines I feel sum up his approach:
“One’s sense of safety and of complacent identification with the victims is swept away, and one is left with something much more challenging and unsettling, forcing one to think again about one’s place in the world — and about our responsibilities to preserving this beautiful place of ours.”
Read is a skilled ‘bringer together’ of different plots and themes in seemingly very different films, chewing them together — Never Let Me Go (2011) and The Road (2010), for instance. In one chapter, When melancholia is exactly what is called for, after presenting different interpretations of the films Melancholia (2011) and Solaris (1972) over the course of a few pages, he brings his reflections together to reach very strong conclusions and well-argued points. For example, that while Melancholia offers its audience an emotional means to transcend death where Solaris is bleaker, more pessimistic, they are both cinematic pointers to the immediacy of life as we live it.
We move from memory, and revisionism, acceptance of the ecological crisis we must accept we are within, and the grief that must flow from that, to hope. Although this must be a real sense of hope brought about by community and change, not by technological fixes or a rational-scientific approach, by reason alone, as is also demonstrated by The Master and his Emissary (2009), the dynamic work of Read’s academic colleague and friend, Iain McGilchrist; his book explores left/right brain consciousness and draws heavily upon the work of visionary artist William Blake. Read makes clear that these are key aspects — and importantly, as he says, “neglected aspects”.
Ecology and Enlightenment
I have learnt from reading this work that this longer way of watching and cross-referencing films, and of course viewing them at different times of our lives, gives a deeper philosophical perspective; and Read’s deep grounding in Wittgensteinian philosophy takes us deeper still. I’m sure this book will in turn also make me a ‘better’ filmmaker, but more importantly than that, a better attender to, listener, reader, activist for the earth, a seeker of re-feeling and of a spaciousness in our world, in every moment.
Artists within the ClimateCultures network will, I feel, benefit from seeing how the academic eye can respond to what we do, and to bring philosophy into the viewing — and, importantly, into the feeling of engagement. In my own case, this book has widened my personal cinematic perspective. I’m sure it will transform my filmmaking and storytelling more widely, and help sharpen its focus into exploring transformative experience, although mine is a largely documentary eye. After all, however much we love the medium, the screen itself remains a medium, and the infamous Marshall McLuhan quote — from Understanding Media: the extensions of man (1964) — rings true: “The medium is the message. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Read suggests that “One might … risk saying that artists have too often largely only interpreted the world; the point, as any true philosopher or filmmaker will realise, is to change it.”
And he asks, “So, who would make up stories as horrible as Never Let Me Go and The Road?”
Answer: Ones who wanted us to end our dogmatic, complacent or despairing defeated slumber. Both stories concern adults who tell children ‘noble lies’. They raise starkly the troubling question of what we ought to tell our children, at a time when their very future is being radically compromised. The only way to avoid such a predicament without evasion is to change the future.
In conclusion, A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenmentis an erudite deep dive into the world of stories of the human/earth experience told visually through film: it has much to reveal to readers, be they practitioner of the art, scholar, viewer or activist keen to explore the genre or be rejuvenated by it.
I highly recommend this book, and thank Rupert for his skills and energy spent researching and writing.
The title of this post, ‘Creations of the Mind’, is from a quote in the frontspiece of the book and comes from Jetsun Milarepa, an 11th century (CE) Tibetan yogi and poet:
See demons as demons: that is the danger. Know that they are powerless: that is the way. Understand them for what they are: that is deliverance. Recognise them as your father and mother: that is their end. Realise that they are creations of the mind: they become its glory. When these truths are known, all is liberation.