The Words That Make Our Stories…

The second in a series on ideas explored in Anticipatory history, this post looks at four of the entries in the book, and other illustrations of how language reveals and shapes the way we understand and respond to environmental and climate change: ‘The Stories We Live By’.

approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes 


In my introductory review (which you can read here), I described Anticipatory history as a “very partial glossary”, both in the sense of exploring only some of the many words or phrases that might appear in any conversation on environmental and landscape change and in the more important one that the different professionals, academics, artists, politicians or other people engaged in such a discussion would produce a different account of each particular term’s ‘meaning’. The book contains 50 short entries drafted by 19 members of the Anticipatory History Research Network. It could have contained another 50 or more, from many other voices. This acknowledged partiality is part of the value of such a book.

Words – both everyday language and technical vocabulary – have power to reassure or disturb, confirm our beliefs or unsettle them, bringing a reinforcement or a shift in perspective. I recently took part in an environmental humanities Summer School at Bath Spa University, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. It was an excellent programme of talks, group work and site visits, with 45 researchers and students from 11 countries, as well as a team of academics from Bath Spa itself. On our first full day together, and in wonderful summer weather, we gathered on the Newton Park Campus for a guided tour of this historic site, which the university leases from the Duchy of Cornwall: an 18th century listed country house with the remains of a 14th century castle, set in acres landscaped by Capability Brown. It was as beautiful as you would expect from an aristocratic estate now owned by royalty and cared for by a higher education institution rightly proud of their location and heritage. Both beautiful and, as our guide explained in his opening remarks, “a highly polluted post-industrial landscape.”

Bath Spa University, Newton Park campus
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Without rehearsing the full history of the overgrazed monoculture grassland, agricultural runoff-silted lake and introduced non-native woodland species-rich habitat that we were introduced in this idyllic landscape, it’s fair to say that everyone’s perception of what we were walking through was radically transformed by these remarks. It was at the same time attractive, peaceful and pristine in an archetypical English way, and the product of feudal clearance, colonial adventurism and agri-industrial overexploitation. It set the tone for the week ahead and our trips to Avebury, Avalon Marshes and the Roman Baths in the city.

Erosion

In Erosion, one of the entries in Anticipatory history, Phil Dyke (the National Trust’s Coast and Marine Advisor) talks about the physical consequences of wave energy on soft coasts. Salt marshes, sand dunes, cliffs and shingle all retreat at different rates depending on geology and the power of waves and currents which sweep away materials, often depositing them on another stretch of coast. This erosion accelerates as wave energy increases, as in the more intense storms and higher seas of a warming climate. But erosion can be cultural too, and not all wearing away is a loss. An unexpected turn of phrase, transporting familiar expressions such as ‘polluted’ or ‘post-industrial’ from their familiar settings (wastelands and urban dereliction) to ones we’ve never associated them with before (elegant parks) can enhance our understanding of both environmental and cultural processes, creating new meaning by the very act of destabilising the old one. “We talk often of values being eroded,” Dyke reminds us, “but as with physical erosion, is it always loss? Or do we really mean change? A change of attitude, a change in our view of the world.”

Wavecut platform caused by the sea’s erosion of cliffs at Southerndown, Bridgend, South Wales.
Photograph: Yummifruitbat © 2006
Source: Wikipedia ‘Erosion’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erosion

Physical and cultural change go hand in hand – or foot in footstep – collapsing and expanding different scales of time and space in a dialogue where experience and imagination inform each other:

Erosion and retreating shorelines reveal features from the historic environment. There is a greater emphasis now being placed on recording these features and understanding the stories these glimpses of the past can tell before they are lost to the sea. Archaeologists are increasingly comfortable with this approach. Erosion may cause the loss of significant features in the historic environment but it can also reveal new significance like the Formby footprints … revealed by the eroding sand dunes and enabling us to see human footprints captured in soft sediments some 4,500 years ago before the dunes were deposited on top.

– Phil Dyke, Erosion

Managed realignment

Writer and sound recordist Tim Dee also addresses both the physical and mental in relation to how we see and respond to change. In Managed realignment he shifts the foreground, taking his cue from the technology of optical magnification; “If you read Ted Hughes’ bird poems you can tell he used binoculars. His thrushes are terrifying partly because he has been able to watch them close up.” He considers the technology of accommodating changes on our coast, of moving or removing barriers against the sea.

It will alter how things seem as well as how they are, how they live in the mind as well as how they are felt underfoot … The dynamism of silt and the energy of water are great and humbling teachers. The terminology might stink – letting go, the nonce term for sacking, is a near neighbour – but the possibilities of life without barricades is revolutionary.

– Tim Dee, Managed realignment

As an island nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our relationship with coastal change is one arena for conflicting views and – appropriately – warlike language of ‘defence’, ‘attack’, ‘retreat’. Geographer Stephen Trudgill charts some of the phrases in local and media discussions of how to respond to the erosion of the shingle bank – and the road it carries – at Slapton in Devon:

In letters to the local press, such terms as ‘damage’ were used, and the sea was described as ‘a powerful enemy’ … The scientific arguments were relatively simple: beaches do move and erode. However, the ‘letting nature take its course’ stance provoked further anger. ‘Environmentalists’ … were represented as ‘Let the sea win’ (Herald Express, 5 February 2001). The South Hams Gazette ran a letters page (16 February 2001) where ‘managed retreat’ was reviled as ‘ludicrous’, ‘straight out of the Polytechnic guidebook’ and ‘political claptrap’ … Initially, there emerged a very clear local view of what might be called ‘mastery over nature’.

– Stephen Trudgill, You can’t resist the sea

Such language reveals the evaluations that people make, which the online ecolinguistics course The Stories We Live By defines “to mean stories in people’s minds about whether a particular area of life is good or bad.” Our personal evaluations can involve weighing up evidence for and against a course of action – whether to ‘defend against’ or ‘work with’ change – as well as personal associations in our memories, for example, of family holidays on a favourite beach now threatened by rapid alteration.

When these stories are widespread across a culture then they are cultural evaluations – stories about what is good or bad that have become conventional … Once cultural evaluations become established there is a danger that the reason why certain things are considered positive and others negative is forgotten. It becomes habitual … [However,] although cultural evaluations are pervasive, they are not universal, and are constantly in a struggle with alternative evaluations.

– Arran Stibbe, The Stories We Live By, Part 5: Evaluations

Language, associations, perspectives and positions – all can shift, eroding and accreting like soft coastlines, carried between people and communities through the processes of discourse. Both Anticipatory history and The Stories We Live By offer insights into how these cultural shifts can operate and are facilitated or resisted over different timescales and in different settings. On one scale – our own – we might tend to see permanence; or if it’s no longer there to be seen, to imagine and desire it. On other scales, the natural world reveals transience and cycles.

The Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen is an online project which also brings voices and vocabularies to bear on the predicaments of global change and local experience. Cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Reddy produced the entry on Stability – the other side of the coin from erosion, at least within certain arbitrary timescales. Rather than coastal change in Britain, she’s drawing on earthquakes in the middle of the United States far from its most famous active faults”: the tremors caused by fracking for fossil fuels – the Anthropocene localised and globalised.

The Anthropocene and its urgent, frightening changes, like the quakes of increasing size and frequency shaking Oklahoma, become particularly clear when contrasted with stability. Stability can be used to bound and define new upheavals. Stability, in this sense, is a matter of conditions, previously reliable, against which new and dangerous ones might be contrasted. But marking these changes and communicating about them are not neutral acts, particularly when evidence, tools, and expertise needed to do so are subject to public, legal, and academic contests and unstable in their own ways.

– Elizabeth Reddy, Stability

Over longer timescales – industrial as well as geological – Oklahoma’s geology has been far from stable: which is not an argument for introducing and compounding anthropogenic instabilities, but does suggest the value of expanding what we understand by ‘stability’ and ‘erosion’, ‘defence’ and ‘managed realignment.’ As Reddy continues:

Anthropogenic or otherwise, earthquakes are always already part of the earth’s thermodynamic system. In a very immediate way, imagining them as part of a stable ecology, once in balance and now out of whack, both is and is not accurate. As with many complex systems, the sheer scale on which seismicity unfolds can limit our ability to characterize recent changes or describe them clearly, and the ways that we conceptualize them and address their urgency have histories and politics.

Story-radar

Writer George Monbiot recently called for help in finding new words to describe what we mean when we say ‘environment’, which is “an empty word that creates no pictures in the mind.” Reminding me of the managed realignment of my view of Newton Park, he says:

I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. We need a new vocabulary … Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term ‘ecosystem services’ … By framing the living world in this way, we bury the issues that money cannot measure. In England and Wales, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil “costs around £1bn per year”. When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money. But the aggregate of £1bn lost this year, £1bn lost next year and so on is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilisation.

– George Monbiot, Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders

Weather Radar: Hurricane Abby approaching the coast of British Honduras
Image: NOAA’s National Weather Service © 1960
Source: Wikipedia, ‘Radar’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radar

Ecolinguistics, as explored in The Stories We Live By, helps us to detect and acknowledge what geographer Gareth Hoskins, another Anticipatory history contributor, refers to as “narrative swirls”. Hoskins names this essential equipment Story-radar:

a device to detect those narrative swirls. Its cultural antennae recognise the hints, gestures, and tropes of unspoken, overarching story-lines, and make visible their hidden morals and logics … Stories contain within them a plotted sequence in which a tension is ultimately resolved. They are satisfying and attractive and compelling precisely because they make sense.”

– Gareth Hoskins, Story-radar

Aspic

Perhaps if we could adjust our sense of time at will, we’d detect the swirls in the energies shaping and reshaping the world, the flux of stability and change. Such a ‘reality-radar’ might help us combat our own tendencies to press for the preservation of our ‘now’, to present the world as if coated in a “thin glaze of aspic [as] was sometimes used to present food for display.” Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey reminds us in Aspic that foodstuffs set in this jelly, derived from gelatine from animal bones, “still decay, just more slowly”:

The words ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’, on the face of it so neutral and straightforward … are projected over unpredictable and often unruly objects and environments, in an attempt to ‘manage’ a way to meaning. In this way, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ perform a function not dissimilar to that of the aspic we began with, setting a mould (albeit a quivering, translucent one) around mutable and ephemeral material worlds.

– Caitlin Desilvey, Aspic

“Amazing eels – best not served in aspic”, Avalon Marshes, Somerset
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is another online glossary – mostly offering new words sent in by participants. Possibly not the sort of language that George Monbiot is looking for, its ideas do nevertheless speak to real experiences and emotions, and also to story-radar-like abilities. Borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war, memoir-based science fiction classic Slaughterhouse Five, the entry from artist Jenny Odell suggests Tralfamidorification as the perception of the world simultaneously on all past, present and future timescales – as experienced by Vonnegut’s aliens from Tralfamadore.

Tralfamidorification is a disorientating experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network. Those who experience tralfamidorification may walk through the world seeing a “beach towel” one moment and then experience briefly the “beach towel” opening up into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera – moments later the experiencer of tralfamidorification may feel the “black hole” close and they return to the present moment and the object or “beach towel” before them.”

– Jenny Odell, Tralfamidorification

And if not “beach towel”‘ why not “beach”? Tralfamidorification maybe approaches the reality-radar I’m imagining. As well as awakening us to the histories and futures of our own material interventions within the world, a ‘Tralfamidoriscope’ could also bring an awareness of the slow and quick flows and loops of matter and energy that make the world.

Until then, we will have to rely on language and imagination, creative glossaries and rooted experience. “So it goes,” as Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, constantly reminds us.


Find out more

The words

Aspic (Caitlin DeSilvey), Erosion (Phil Dyke), Managed realignment (Tim Dee) and Story-radar (Gareth Hoskins) appear in Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, published by Uniform Books.

Stability by Elizabeth Reddy appears at Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a project of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

Tralfamidorification by Jenny Odell appears at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, “a public participatory artwork by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott focused on creating new language as an innovative way to better understand our rapidly changing world due to manmade climate change and other Anthropocenic events.”

The other texts

George Monbiot’s article Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders appeared in the Guardian, 9/8/17

Stephen Trudgill’s paper ‘You can’t resist the sea’: evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, was published in Geography, the Journal of the Geographical Association (Spring 2009) and is available from his Researchgate page.

You can read about the prehistoric Formby Footprints at the site created by the late Gordon Roberts.

Questioning old senses? Space for creative thinking...  

"Don't fancy donning your tralfamidoriscope headset with enhanced story-radar earbuds? What technology or ability would you invent - or do you already possess - to reveal the whirls and flows that will help us navigate the Anthropocene?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form

Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone

Our latest Members' post comes from artist Oliver Raymond-Barker, who I met at art.earth's In Other Tongues conference in June. Here, he shares the talk he gave there, which I was keen to feature on ClimateCultures.

Stones that whisper, stones that dance, that play on pipe or fiddle, that tremble at cock-crow, that eat and drink, stones that march as an army – these unhewn slabs of granite hold the secret of the country’s inner life. 

– Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones.

Slate 3
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

As a climber I have the visceral knowledge that stone is alive. Minutes, hours, days and years spent on rock have given me an opportunity to listen to its song. It crashes and rumbles, creaks and groans, whistles and hums. However, it lives and speaks to us on another level – a subtle yet altogether more powerful pitch – a language beyond tongues.

This animist language is what I am here to explore with you today – through looking at a range of literary references but also through an account of my own personal experience, as ultimately this is the only knowledge I feel I can truly trust.

Language and Technology

Curiously, for a symposium and a talk that is centred around communication in other tongues, I would like to start by talking about language! However, I feel it necessary to do this in order to trace a path to our current position and to give context.

I begin with some words by Narendra, an Indian writer who has spent many years living with and writing about the Adivasi people of Bastar in India. The quote is taken from a piece of writing entitled ‘The Language of Issues’. In it Narendra attempts to describe to his friend Nureti (an Adivasi local) the modern language of climate change; i.e. in terms of carbon emissions, carbon footprints, changing crop patterns etc. This is the response he receives from Nureti:

“Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of the earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do good things for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it speak. What you say are your words. Your word has taken away the vitality and the promise; but like our gods it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word too.”

Nureti’s words highlight the gaping chasm that has developed between older, so called ‘primitive’ understandings of the world and our own separatist world view. Nureti recognises the power of words and how their repetition can perpetuate a way of being that has no future.

Listening to a recent talk by the artist Sean Lynch, I realised how far we have travelled down this path towards a language of ‘malady and impairment’ (quoting Narendra again). Lynch has been researching mining in Cornwall as part of an upcoming commission. Of particular interest to him was the language employed by the mining industry; what he called a kind of ‘corporate mono-lingualism’. This modern day lexicon is used to legitimise the flagrant taking of profit from the earth whilst at the same time distancing us from the land that is being worked. One such term the industry uses is ‘overburden’, which generally refers to the surplus material that lies above an area of ground suitable for economic exploitation. For the industry this is a purely technical term to describe waste material and it makes no reference to any cultural or environmental loss that may be incurred.

The antithesis to this inanimate mode of perception can be found in Alan Garner’s book Strandloper. Based on the true story of William Buckley, an 18th century man from rural England, the novel charts his journey from England to Australia, whence he is banished for being involved in Shick-Shack day – an ancient fertility ritual. After wandering in Australia for more than a year he is adopted by a group of Aborigines who believe him to be Murrangurk, a great hero of their people. In the course of the book he is sent by his adopted people to talk with another tribe because of their need for stone. Billi-billeri, the chief of the tribe responds to his request thus:

“If at once all the world comes for axes,” said Billi-billeri, “they will eat until Bomjinna is no more, and the Wurunjerri-baluk, the Kurnaje-berring, the Boi-berrit are no more, and the land will die in its Dreaming. What will it matter then if the sky should fall? Answer my dream.”

Murrangurk cannot answer this dream (statement) by the chief. He knows the truth that when the mountain (Bomjinna) dies, the people will also die. The two are so inextricably linked through ritual, story and experience that it prohibits the aggressive exploitation of the stone. For the tribe there is no dichotomy between inner and outer worlds, all is unity and this is explained through their stories and dreams.

Returning to our contemporary use of language I would like to take a closer look at a word used earlier in this talk: environment. A frequently used term, I feel it be problematic and indicative of our move away from a unified whole. According to the Collins dictionary it can be defined as: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time. The issue here is once again the reinforcing of a separatist paradigm, I return to Narendra’s essay to further illustrate this point:

‘….it was probably in the 1970’s that language began taking its strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an instance, when the word environment arrived sometime in the 80’s, it was difficult to explain to my father. He was an educated man….. Issues have replaced languages; they have guile and deception.’

Moving on from language I would also like to mention technology and its role in our anthropocentric understanding of the world. In her book The Re-enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik makes the case that, “Since the enlightenment…our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view.”

Instead of our actions being guided by daily, physical perceptions and experiences we are allowing ourselves to be driven by technology and progress, a rationale that is quantifiable and therefore seen to be more valid. Gone is the belief in story and myth as a way of being. However I am no Luddite! It would be rash to reject the opportunities that modern technology provides. The question therefore is – How do we reconcile these two worlds that seem so at odds? I guess that is one of the key reasons we are all here today.

Speaking from personal experience I also know that technology can be a useful tool in enabling haptic understanding. Climber Greg Child talks about this potential in his article Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher:

‘A surfer planing down a wave or a biker leaning into a fast corner isn’t thinking of board dimensions or mechanics.They’re in there for the ride. Our intellect has given us technology, which has given us a specific variety of devices suited to escapism, which in turn stimulate our emotions. A full circle where man has used his intellect to stimulate that intellect. Technology is the conveyance to put one in these distant situations. On arrival the metaphysical becomes as apparent as the physical, and ideas, feelings, surroundings and events merge into a total experience that leaves one slashing for words.’

Over the years I have been drawn to the kind of extreme situations that Child describes. Technology, in the form of a climbing rope or surfboard for example, has often been the key to some of my most vital moments. Continued exposure to mountains and rockfaces, prolonged immersion in lakes, rivers and oceans; these elements have eroded some of the harsh corners of my intellect, allowing me the time and space to exist and interact in a different way.

It is one of these experiences that I would now like to relate to you.

Dali’s Hole
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

Slate

I had never climbed on slate before. In fact this was one of my first climbs since arriving in North Wales. I had never climbed with Kenny before either – a hard, compact and quiet man, yet with a humour that glinted at you from under the surface. He gunned the small car down the pass, taking the sharp corners in a competent yet terrifying fashion. I craned my head up at the mythical faces – Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Clogwyn y Grochan – the fast beating heart of Welsh rock climbing. My palms began to sweat. Llanberis was past us in a beat – we wound our way up through the grey faced villages of Deiniolen and Dinorwig, rolling to a stop at the Bus Stop quarry, the gateway to the slate. Packs on, ropes slung across our shoulders like sleeping serpents we began the walk into the quarries, the old workings to our left and right greened over with pioneer species such as silver birch, the slate walls enveloped in moss and lichen, the atmosphere intimate and inviting. We emerged by the derelict cutting sheds and the true scale of the quarries imposed itself. Half of the mountain has been gouged away; a giant bite from a mythical creature. Yet on closer inspection I began to see the intricate madness of this hole in the hill – inclines, engine houses, levels…..my eye slowly panning across the years of toil and ingenuity that built this monument.

We were heading for the heart of the quarry – dubbed California by climbers. Access to this inner sanctum of the slate is gained by skirting the side of Dali’s Hole, so named because of the surreal dead trees that appear from the blue lagoon in periods of dry weather. On the other side of Dali’s Hole lies a black tunnel entrance through which we must walk to reach California. The floor was littered with fragments of slate that chattered and chimed under our feet – a noise synonymous with climbing on the slate. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of the quarry amplified the moment of wonder and awe: a heavy silence; tremendous grey blue walls heaving out of the shale all around us. Yet after a moment spent absorbing this eerie grandeur, I realised there was after all a soundtrack to this space: the dripping of water, the chink of sliding slate and beneath it all a deep hum; the hydroelectric plant that lives in the mountain; the sonic combination is unlike any other I have experienced.

Tunnel to California
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The route we had come to climb goes by the name of Central Sadness. A striking line that dominates the main wall – ascending over 200ft to the scree above. Kenny was to lead both pitches, of which I was glad – this climb was way beyond my capabilities. Without any fuss or pleasantries Kenny raced up the first pitch, dispensing it with an aplomb verging on disdain such was his efficiency. Soon I was forcing my way up the steep blank wall towards his belay – thankful of the rope above – wondering how he’d managed the protection-less wall and strenuous, bold climbing. On reaching Kenny, there was a quick exchange of gear, a mad grin from him; and he was away again, surging up the beautiful, silver wall above.

It is here that I reach the crux of my story. Kenny reached the top and I stepped out onto the head wall of the climb. Illuminated by the evening sun and with the tough first pitch out of the way, my body relaxed into its familiar rhythms and I began to pay attention to the rock…

I am climbing a perfect finger crack that cleaves the clean face of Slate like a bolt of lightning, the effort involved is intense yet somehow effortless, the rock seeming to envelop my hands. I feel a confluence of complex emotions: a fluidity and fire courses from the rock into my body, I feel as if bones and rock may fuse and become one. There is no space in my mind for thought only this stone alongside me; and movement, upwards, outwards, inwards. I am in direct contact with 500 million years of alchemy and I know in that moment, that this rock is not a dull, lifeless inanimate material. It has a life, buried far beyond our logical everyday comprehension but well within the ken of our veiled, intuitive selves.

Slate 1
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2017
http://oliverraymondbarker.co.uk

The way forward

For me the fact that there is a world beyond our normal modes of communication is a given – it is non negotiable. I know this because I have felt it. Not through thought or intellect but with my whole being. How therefore do we use this knowledge of unity to engender a better world for ourselves, those around us and dare I say it the ‘environment’?

I can only really answer this with any level of accuracy and conviction from a personal standpoint. I need to spend more time outside, not just while ‘doing’ extreme sports, but in all aspects of my life. Working, cooking, eating, sleeping and waking – it is only through being immersed in the outside world in my daily activity that I will gain more knowledge and vision. It is that simple for me. That is not to say I won’t read books or watch films; have long conversations and arguments; use my smartphone or digital camera. I have a family and am too embroiled in the intricacies of modern life to become an ascetic – yet we all have a choice on how to spend our time and energy. We can do both – it takes control, willpower and commitment but I believe it is possible to reconcile the old world and the new – indeed perhaps we can take a step forward, creating untold stories and new possibilities for ourselves.

On a national and global scale this seems a massively complex question. As I write this we are fast approaching a vote that will influence the future of this country. As I read this I imagine we will know the answer to who has won that vote!* We all have our political hopes and nightmares – without meaning to be cynical, will the outcome make any difference? Governments come and go, policies change, agreements are ratified then cancelled….I’m not proposing that we should not vote and that we should not fight – we must. Yet we should also focus on that which feeds us as individuals and remember the timescales implicit in this world in which we live. By engaging with deep time and the well spring of energy that exists therein I hope we will find ways to make this world of ours work.

I feel I know what I must do. But having the courage and conviction to fulfil these actions is tough when living in a society that – on the surface at least – seems opposed to alternative ways of being, particularly when working from a logical, rational viewpoint. But therein lies the key for me. I will not be logical. I will not be rational. I will not be bound by the self-imposed tenets of our language and technology. I will find my own truth. Within and without. That knowledge will be accrued over long periods of time: spent listening, feeling and then acting. I will live as the animal that I am; stripping away layers of culture and convention that occlude any real sense of self.

I know what I must do.

He felt the world was telling him to stop looking, for then he would see beyond; to stop thinking, for then he would comprehend; to stop trying to make sense of things, for then he would find the truest grace. – Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods.

* Oliver was speaking the day after the UK’s 2017 General Election.

Find out more

Greg Child‘s essay, Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher (1983), appears in Mirrors in the Cliffs (edited by Jim Perrin) published by Diadem (out of print). It is also available in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child (1993), published by Mountaineers Books.

The passage by Ithell Colquhoun is from his book (1957), The Living Stones, published by Peter Owen.

Alan Garner‘s book (1996), Strandloper, originally published by Harvill Press, is available from Penguin.

Suzi Gablik‘s book (1991), The Reenchantment of Art, was published by Thames & Hudson (out of print).

Narendra‘s essay (2013), Dispatches from Basta, is published in Dark Mountain Issue 4.

The passage by Ben Okri is from his book (1996), Astonishing the Gods, as originally published by Phoenix, and is available from Head of Zeus.

Questioning technology? Space for creative thinking... 

"Picking up on Suzi Gablik's observation, how do you feel your own experience of technology disrupts your view of what is real? How, instead, can technology act as your 'conveyance to ... distant situations' and direct experience, as Greg Child suggests?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form

 

Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea

Writer Justina Hart introduces her poem — commissioned following a Weatherfronts climate change conference — about prehistoric events that drowned Doggerland and made Britain an island, and how her research with the help of palaeo-scientists fed into the creative process.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.

Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.

This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.

Weatherfronts and early ideas – Doggerwhat?

I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.

As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.

I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC)
Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerland
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?

My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.

To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.

To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.

But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?

Making the links — the muddle of ancient time

I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).

Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.

Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.

Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.

I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.

Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:

We have our own sounds for water, run,
higher ground, drowning –
but the same sounds as you for fear …
Ancient tree roots at Druridge Bay, Northumberland.Photograph by Dr Louise Callard
Ancient tree roots at Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523 “The forest and peats found at a different locations along Druridge Bay have been dated between 8000-6000 yrs BP (before present). Sea-level rose and flooded the site probably around 5000-4000 yrs BP. Dogger Bank is at a lower elevation so was flooded by the sea much earlier.”

A first poem — bedding down with Mesolithic tribes

Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.

Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.

Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.

This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:

The waves feel cold but they’re soft too
like fur. This new world moves, is alive
– each tear, each sea drop is alive.
Look, see all my babies dance!

This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.

Face-to-face with scientists — clarity at last

I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem. 

The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.

Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.

Reconstructed Mesolithic round-house. Replica of a 10,000 year old round-house which was excavated from a nearby cliff-top site.
Reconstructed Mesolithic round-house. Replica of a 10,000 year old round-house which was excavated from a nearby cliff-top site.
Source: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howick_house Photograph: Andrew Curtis © 2005

They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:

  • rates and levels of inundation
  • changes to the landscape and vegetation
  • Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
  • Their lifestyle and spiritual views
  • Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.

At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.

Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.


Find out more

Justina Hart was one of twelve commission winners from the Weatherfronts climate change conferences for writers, which ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe organised for the charity TippingPoint at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016 (with partners Open University in 2014 and Durham University in 2016). All the commissions from those events have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download from Cambria Books.

In the second part of her post, Justina completes the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Wikipedia gives good accounts of Doggerland and the Mesolithic period in Europe and elsewhere.

Mark White’s 2006 paper, Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, (World Archaeology, 38 4), is available from Durham University Research Online.

You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage

Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here: 

And her full poem and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form. 

On Symbols of Hope for the Future

Artist Mary Eighteen discusses powerful associations of hope she sees between the 20th-century art of Barnet Newman and a 21st-century technology that will protect Venice and its Renaissance heritage from some of the impacts of manmade climate change.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


In his essay, The Sublime and the Avant Garde, Jean Francois Lyotard refers to the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, stating that “In 1959-51, Barnet Newman painted a canvas measuring 2.42 m by 5.42m which he called Vir Heroicus Sublimis. In the early sixties, he entitled his first three sculptures Here 1, Here 11, Here 111. Another painting was called Not Over There, Here, two paintings were called Now, and two others were entitled Be. In December 1948, Newman wrote an essay entitled The Sublime Is Now.

Vir heroicus sublimis, 1950 – 1951 Artist: Barnett Newman © 1951 https://www.wikiart.org/en/barnett-newman/vir-heroicus-sublimis-1951

In order to explain a point regarding the physicality of experience in Newman’s painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I want to recall a visual encounter I experienced on a trip to Venice on a cold evening a few years ago.

On this cold and still February night I am with friends, poised on the Canal Grande. There is a feeling of lingering melancholy for which Venice has become legendary. There is a smell of decay generated by the water. The smell is not invasive, more a lingering odour of oldness that infiltrates the senses with eerie persistence. It is an odour that caresses, like a whisper softly spoken, its essence apparent in each wave and ripple that skims the water’s edge. Venice touches my soul like nowhere else on earth, like an inner sanctum of ethereal magic.

Amidst the dark, I see the church of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori, rising like an apparition against the darkness of the night. The whiteness of the front façade, designed by Palladio, is almost phosphorescent. It looms against the sky as if to affirm a past still deeply rooted within the here and now. It mingles with the ever-pervading odour of oldness, transcending the story of the past into the world of the present with an intoxicating pungency. Looking at the ghostly apparition of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, I am reminded of the vulnerability of Venice to the sea. Venice has a history of flooding but the idea of the city sinking into the sea is more than most people could tolerate, and much money has been spent to avoid this ever happening. But this is no less a conundrum than climate change, our own vulnerability to rising sea levels and their future effect on humanity.

Newman’s zips and Palladio’s facade 

Like my encounter with the melancholy of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, so Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis was designed to be a physical experience. Palladio’s fine front façade, in raised vertical splendour, emanates a celebration of hope for the future in a city that transcends both past and present in equal measures.

Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori
Photographer: Unknown

Newman’s paintings do the same. He referred to the stripes that dominated many of his paintings as ‘zips’. I look at a Newman painting and I see the same encounter with hope as I experienced with Chiesa San Maggiori that cold still night in February in Venice. I have spent a lifetime loving Venice and being fascinated by water, but I did not know then as an artist how involved I would become with ocean toxicity and the future of our seas. Within this scenario, Venice resonates a certain fragility in its relationship to the water.

Mose: Venice’s flood barrier inspiring the future

While Newman’s paintings and Palladio’s façade transcend hope within the dark, there is 21st Century hope within the ground-breaking Venice Flood Barrier, known internationally as the Mose Project. Newman and Palladio inspired a future generation of painters and architects; Mose inspires the future in terms of protecting Venice from rising sea levels.

Mose Project Flood Barrier, Venice
Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

The flood barrier is positioned along three sections of the lagoon: the Lido Inlet, the Malamocco Inlet and the Chioggia Inlet. The barriers form an integrated system of mobile gates that, as it were, step into action in times of rising sea levels that will cause flooding. While there are controversies regarding the Mose Project, it is there to protect. The yellow structure, spread horizontally over the lagoon like a brilliant yellow Barnet Newman Zip, is indicative of not just hope for the future of Venice, but the hope that is represented vertically in Newman’s messianic Zips and Palladio’s facades. 

If I were once again standing in Venice on a cold February night looking over the lagoon, I would ponder the yellow Mose Barrier. For within its stretch there lies a paradox. While the barrier protects Venice from the sea for however long that will be, it is also indicative of mankind’s continual disruption of the environment, which is causing the rising levels of the sea, and our need to protect that environment, and in particular our oceans and seas, from us.

Newman’s Zips and the vertical façade of Palladio’s Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori gave hope within the optimism of post war American Abstract Expressionism and the humanism of Renaissance architecture. Similarly, the new Venetian flood barrier straddles the lagoon as a symbol of defence that is a reminder of our duty to defend against rising sea levels by vigilance and human responsibility.


Find out more

You can read Jean Francois Lyotard‘s essay The Sublime and the Avant-Garde in The Lyotard Reader, edited by Andrew Benjamin, Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1998

Barnet Newman‘s The Sublime is Now is in Theories of Modern Art, by Herschel B. Chipp, University of California Press.1998

You can read about the Mose Project in this 2015 article from the Guardian, “Inside Venice’s bid to hold back the tide“.

Questioning Symbols? Space for creative thinking...  

"How do objects obtain their symbolic power and what role can this play in orientating us toward hopeful futures?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God

Illustrator and writer Mat Osmond explores shifting personifications of ‘animal mysteries’ in artist Meinrad Craighead’s powerful paintings to look for an understanding of how we might approach art practice and our apprehension of landscape in terms of prayer.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


“Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table”.

– D. H. Lawrence: Apocalypse, 1929.

Whom do you pray to?

In her 2005 book Findings, the writer Kathleen Jamie muses on the nature of prayer whilst sharing fish and chips with a friend. For Jamie, her friend’s question, ‘Whom do you pray to?’, posed in relation to her partner’s life-threatening illness, elicits an unequivocal response. Jamie prays, she replies, to ‘No-one’: to ‘Absolutely nothing’. But, in place of the appalling ‘crush of hope’, of the futility of ‘haggling with God’, Jamie offers a notion of prayer as, more simply, a ‘paying heed’: as an immediate, moment-to-moment attention to ‘the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing’.

It’s a memorable passage. But it’s Jamie’s friend — specifically, his inarticulate, off-hand retort to his own question, when she turns it back on him, ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’ —  that has acted as the spur for this rumination. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer has stayed with me, in part, because it leaves me with a certain residue. I see that I’m not quite in step with her dismissal of a Who — or perhaps, of a shifting plurality of whos — on the other side, as it were, of prayer. So, in a spirit of ‘neither of the above’ to the options Jamie’s passage seems to imply, I want to look for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, on the one hand, and our apprehension of landscape, on the other, in terms of prayer.

Something in her waters

Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.

I’m going to talk about Meinrad Craighead, an American painter whose career has included fourteen years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England. I’m going to talk about Craighead’s intense religiosity — her sense of sustained encounter with a feminine presence that first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.

I’m going to talk about how what happened to Craighead that summer afternoon remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist: as she put it, ‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water’. I’m going to look at how whatever it was that this experience introduced her to, has run like a central current through her work, a current that’s been closely associated, at all times, with her experiences of landscape as ‘sacred place’.

The readings from Craighead’s memoirs that punctuate this talk span her lifetime: from that abrupt childhood awakening, to a year spent alone, aged 28, at the mountain shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, to her eventual return from England, recalled from monastic life by a recurrent dream to what she considers her spiritual home: the desert landscape of New Mexico, watered by the Rio Grande. There she found, in the face of Crow Mother — a Hopi kachina spirit — that feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood. 

And I’m going to talk, in particular, about how this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscape has presented itself within Craighead’s work as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of those ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.  

O Fountain Mouth, 1989, by Meinrad Craighead
O Fountain Mouth, 1989
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

Angels talking back                 

If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them. 

First, though, a word about angels and creative practice. In his 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Van Boekel offers a rough — and clearly, leaky — distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’ by artists working within an ecological paradigm.

On the one hand, Van Boekel observes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, with artists adopting an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitude to their environment.

In bringing Craighead here, it’s the other of Van Boekel’s categories that I want to consider, that frames art practice as ‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, one that involves a ‘dynamic, open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.

An assumption underlying Van Boekel’s distinction is that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. What I want to look at here, then, is the nature of the intimacy, the kind of seeing, to which Craighead’s figurative improvisations invite us.

But to name the kind of seeing I have in mind, I need to take a step back. Van Boekel’s framing of art as an emergent encounter with images that necessarily come ‘from behind one’s back’, and his labelling of this category of practice as angels talking back, are both informed by the work of the Jungian art therapist, Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and inviting their images to talk directly back to them.

Likewise, McNiff’s notion of art as a daemonic, transformative force, one capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and participant, flows directly from the work of the archetypal psychologist, James Hillman. So it’s to Hillman that I’m going to turn, here, for a way to approach the kind of seeing we find in Meinrad Craighead’s work.

Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992, by Meinrad Craighead
Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

The captive heart

It was at Montserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna. Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.

There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Montserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.

So how might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her overtly figurative improvisations, and her engagement with landscape? To answer that, I’m going to consider the way that imagination and prayer are approached in his seminal essay The Thought of the Heart, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: of what the heart is, and of what the heart does.

Before he can get to this, Hillman has first to set out our prevailing stories about the heart: those accreted fantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture. The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, a complex organic machine.

But prior to this, and suffused throughout our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seat of our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’ is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.

What would it mean, then, if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that ‘she works from the heart’? Especially if that phrase came parceled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion: of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour.

If any of that sounds familiar, then I’d suggest that what we find at work here, for all our post-religious, secular criticality, may turn out to include a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well with its persistent interior person — a person who we take to be somehow or other set apart from Van Boekel’s ‘circumambient world’.

And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this story – not least, within the confessional industries that it fuels – we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and — so the story goes — ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both’.

Himma

In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.

Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European Alchemy, and, through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma — a word which translates, roughly, as the thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.

Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart, is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing which arises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare ‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’

Woman with Ravens, by Meinrad Craighead
Woman with Ravens, 2000
Artist: Meinrad Craighead © 2017
http://www.meinradcraighead.com

An animal mode of reflection

The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies. 

Of the many aspects of Hillman’s reading of himma that I find illuminating in respect of Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as le coeur de lion, the lion in the heart. What this image remembers, Hillman muses, is that imagination constitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.

In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world — as its own efflorescence, so to speak. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it.’ And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.

And what of intimacy? What of the interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is ‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’. 

This is the species of imagination that I recognize in Meinread Craighead’s paintings. Not the ‘bending-back’ of ironic, critical reflection, nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What I see in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. Its something more urgent – more needy, even – than the self-bracketing conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And to my eye, the gaze that Craighead’s work returns to us offers something altogether more interesting.

In both Craighead’s words and her images, what I read, above all, is a dogged, needful return to the slow work of recuperation — to that ‘recuperation of the lost soul’ which both Hillman and McNiff would propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology, and prayer.

We began with the notion of art as a mode of attention to the self-presenting world. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, I find the way of seeing that Craighead’s work invites me to. And if her lifelong imaginal recuperation can be seen as a form of prayer, then I think that such prayer is also, like Jamie’s, an attentiveness — a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive ‘decorum’ which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘in the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’


Find out more

You can explore Mat Osmond’s words and images at Strandline Books

You can see more of Meinrad Craighead’s art at meinradcraighead.com. The site also lists her out-of-print books – The Litany of the Great River (1991), The Mother’s Songs (1986), The Sign of the Tree (1979) and The Mother’s Birds (1976), but also a current retrospective of her art and essays: Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God (2003) edited by Katie Burke.

James Hillman’s The Thought of the Heart (1981) and other works are available from Spring Publications.

Kathleen Jamie’s essay, Fever, appears in her prose collection, Findings (2005), published by Sort of Books.

Shaun McNiff’s Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination (1992) is published by Shambhala.

Jan van Boeckel presented his paper, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: Art Making and Intentionality in nature experience, at the Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, in Ayr Scotland in 2011. It is published by Intellect.

Questioning Prayer? Space for creative thinking...   

"This post is framed, in part, as a response to Kathleen Jamie's rhetorical question 'Whom do you pray to?'. What notion of prayer, if any, bears on your own approach to the predicament of the Anthropocene, the large-scale changes that human activity has set in motion? Does prayer have a place in articulating a response to anthropogenic calamities? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on your approach to creative practice?" 

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