‘Creations of the Mind’

creations of the mindFilmmaker 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.


approximate Reading Time: 7 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.”

A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read
A Film-philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment, by Rupert Read

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 The Lord 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.

Ancient stories 

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.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk

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.”

Building hope 

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”.

Melancholia, by Lars von Trier
Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier

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 Enlightenment is 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. 


Find out more

A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment by Rupert Reed (2019) is published by Routledge. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is a renowned Wittgensteinian scholar, with research interests in political and environmental philosophy.

SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) directed by Gwaai Edenshaw (2018) — which receives its UK premiere as part of the Canada Now film festival in London, from 24 to 28 April — is dsciussed in this recent Guardian article (28/3/19), Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world.

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.

— Milarepa

Rising Appalachia

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe SmithWriter Mary Woodbury finds deep resonance in the music of Rising Appalachia, who draw on the rural landscapes of her family, and whose musical fusion offers ideas of resilience and community in the face of change and loss.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes   


Mary’s post is contribution to our Gifts of Sound and Vision series: where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.

The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…

***

Mom was born in a log cabin in Francis Holler in Brinkley, Kentucky, a small, sleepy town in the Appalachian hills. Her dad and mother never had an education past the 4th grade nor ever learned how to drive a car. They lived off the land and probably rued that Pappaw had to work in the coal mines to earn money (he later had a carpentry business) or that the little crick in their front yard was really just a sewer pit.

My memories growing up consisted of hanging with family and climbing the mountains around my grandparents’ holler and picking wildflowers in sunlit meadows.

We went back there a few years ago to remember it all. Mountains nearby had been strip-mined. The cliffs rising up on one side of the dirt holler were gone. Their little summer waterfalls and winter icicles were gone. The log cabin where my mom was born was gone. The old lady’s house at the end of the holler — where we used to pick black walnuts — was gone. Seemed like even the mountain was gone or at least started further back than it had due to road expansion. My mammaw and pappaw and dad and an aunt and uncle are gone too. But Pappaw’s old house was still there. Time is a cruel enemy when you experience loss like that, not just of people you love but of the wild you lose along the way. And, if you live long enough, these losses start accumulating to the point it’s like phantom limbs and the ache lives long in the heart.

Deep roots

480 million years ago — when the Appalachian Mountains formed during the Ordovician era, Laurentia’s landmass put the Scottish Highland and Appalachian Mountains in the same mountain range, which explains their physical similarities. Who could have foretold that the Scot-Irish folks would migrate across the Atlantic as well? We went to Ireland with my mother a few years ago, and she still talks about how it uncannily feels like home.

The Appalachian mountains extend from southeastern Canada down to central Alabama. But there’s also the cultural region of Appalachia that is generally considered to include folks living in the hills and valleys between Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. This area of memory, of loss, is one that has become more bittersweet the further away I have travelled. Where I felt real and felt the animal in me as I spent long days with my cousins and siblings climbing those hills, where also my mother had planted pine trees as a child. I remember the soft summer nights and hearing whip-poor-wills while sitting outside on the old porch where my Pappaw whittled and told stories. I remember Mammaw snapping beans in the yard and her great shucky beans and fried green tomatoes and applesauce cake and cornbread. What I remember, really the most, was the love.

The Appalachian area was sometimes frightening to me. Dotting the backroads were otherworldly shacks that were so broken down you wouldn’t think anyone lived there, until you saw an ancient toothless couple or a clothesline out on the front porch. Late at night trucks would roll down Highway 160, in front of that old sewer creek, and would echo throughout the bends along the road.

We’d go up to hike near an abandoned coal mine where a house had burned down and now stood black and structureless, and there were poor shacks up there too. The land that had cradled my memory from as long as I could remember was also a forest of poverty, mist, and ghosts. Every time we visited, it seemed like we went backwards in time, similar to the way Joseph Conrad described the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. The area resembled nothing of where we came from, though it did resemble everything that was wrong with America and its unhealthy coal mining industry among a poverty-stricken, hungry community.

In the 19th century, coal overtook wood for energy in the United States. From the 1960s onward, mountaintop coal removal became more popular than underground mining due to the fact that a worker could get more than twice as much coal. Coal mining has been ruinous for rivers, air, soil, biodiversity, and, of course, human health — with black lung disease and cancer. Fly ash slurry and chemical spills from coal production have destroyed waterways and even been found in drinking water. Fracking to extract natural gas found in shale is also dangerous in that it results in poisonous wastewater that can end up in groundwater; this water is hard to break down, even by wastewater treatment plants. Deforestation and wetland removal in order to produce coal are no small issues either. Though the fossil fuel industry has been known for the jobs it provides, mechanization and energy transition have greatly reduced the number of these jobs in the past few decades.

Rising Appalachia: story and song

My bittersweet memories of the eastern Kentucky hills and urge to experience those times again has been helped along by story and song from the region, particularly from the band Rising Appalachia, whose music takes me back. Founded by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith (Leah sometimes goes by the last name Song), the band’s southern roots are punctuated with activism and care for the natural world.

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
risingappalachia.com

Musical Traditions, the online magazine for traditional music throughout the world, explains Appalachian music as deriving from two types:

Today when ethnomusicologists discuss ‘Appalachian music’ they generally divide the term into two periods: the traditional music — including ballads and dance tunes, mostly brought over with Anglo-Celtic immigrants, and in evidence from the early eighteenth century through 1900 — and the ‘old-time’ music popular from around 1900 through 1930, a blend of that tradition with parlour and vaudeville music, African-American styles, and Minstrel Show tunes… One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group… Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a ‘slave instrument’ until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or ‘bom-diddle-diddy’ produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.

Rising Appalachia integrates all these styles in their music, and has an upcoming album, Leylines, coming in May, which will include Ani DiFranco, Trevor Hall, and Maurice Tuner. According to their website:

“Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music — that we’ve been born and raised with — and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

Rise up

I’m looking forward to Leylines but also have found a home in their music that’s already out as it’s kind of like the umbilical cord to home. I’ve listened to the band for a few years now and have recognized the way that pain can bring art, and that their activism is not lip service nor festishized but comes from a genuine place.

In the video of the song Filthy Dirty South is the statement: “Due to the production and extraction of oil, a great deal of marshes and swamps are lost at an astonishing rate of a football field every 30 minutes.” The video shows a paddle through a southern swamp, along with the sisters playing guitars in the woods. Water reflects sunlight almost ponderously. Plants that are not invasive kudzu (which I saw everywhere in Kentucky when we last visited) peek through the rich forest soil. Feathers and beads adorn guitars and hair. There is something primal about it all, and something sweet about the sisters’ voices dipping into the soft ballad of Appalachia.

Another Rising Appalachia song, SUNU, has an aerialist swinging from a tree, dancers and Moko jumbies wearing ancient African masks, and it combines African and Appalachian music. ‘Sunu’ means ‘Dance Beautiful Women Dance’ in Guinea. It’s clearly a celebration of life and nature, but also seems to represent, at least to me, a theatrical coming together of multiple cultures, a positive sign about how we must dignify where people came from.

In Occupy, the band recognizes resistance. It’s reminiscent of old blues with that pain of the world coming through but with no more weeping and a’wailing because “we’ll be done with the troubles of the world.” Similarly, in Resilient, one of my favorite songs, is a call for action and not drowning in helplessness. Echoing the reality of pipelines through backyards and “prayers to the waters” and “women to the center”, it calls for hanging on, not just to where we are now but to our roots. The video is a beautiful one of dancers expressing this idea of uplift.

I cannot begin to cover every vision and sound from these artists, and they are all as worthy as the ones mentioned here. I can only recommend digging a new rabbit hole for yourself. You will find modern fusion as well as reimagined older folk songs like I’ll Fly Away and Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Another Rising Appalachia song, Harmonize, further ties together past and present, as the band actually travelled to the Salish Sea, near my current home in British Columbia, to film the video and meet old friends and family there. The video is a story of rites of passage for a teenager and includes old crafts like sailing, blacksmithing, seed-saving, fishing, and even love and courtship. 

Listening to this music has become the thread connecting past and present for me, in more ways than one. Their videos bring back the sweet summer days I recall as a child in the sunlit forested mountains and lakes, with bugs and seeds and petals flying by in some frenetic motion that says “this is life, and it is good.” Their music may be born of pain in this world, but it takes us to a higher place where we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against hate, division, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. It’s a music of place and time, of what was once and still is, but the songs also transcend time. It’s about hanging onto the deepest of our good roots, no matter that mountains, summer waterfalls, marshes, forests, or people we love have gone.

Since those old days of Kentucky, although I have moved to the west coast of Canada, protesting pipelines in my own woods — and finding new mountains to climb and old stories to tell among friends during backyard southern parties, complete with shucky beans and bourbon — I still slip back into my southern accent. Rise above. Carry it forward. Uplift. 


Find out more

Mary Woodbury — whose forthcoming novel, Up the River (under pen name Clara Hume), is about a pipeline spill in Appalachia — has previously contributed two posts for us on A History of Eco-fiction

Up the River, by Clara Hume
Up the River, by Clara Hume
Cover design: Clare Hume © 2019 (art © Can Stock Photo / prometeus www.canstockphoto.co.uk)

Rising Appalachia was founded by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the band established an international fan base due to relentless touring, tireless activism, and no small degree of stubborn independence: find out more at risingappalachia.com.

Musical Traditions, the magazine for traditional music throughout the world, is an online resource, and includes A Short History of Appalachian Music, which Mary quotes from in her post.

Though this article centres around one band’s contribution to Appalachian music, Mary has provided some further reference for both story and song:

Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change

climate griefWriter Deborah Tomkins chairs Bristol Climate Writers, who meet to critique their poetry, science or nature writing, short stories or novels. She shares their discussion on ‘climate grief’ and how psychological responses to climate change influence their writing.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


I’m grateful to artist Perrin Ireland, who has agreed for us to use drawings from her Climate Grief graphic story to complement Deborah’s text.

***

This August, I came across The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, an article by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He writes about the profound climate grief he sometimes experiences, which he says makes sense to him and is helpful in focusing his mind, but also a crippling anxiety, which is less helpful. I forwarded the article to Bristol Climate Writers, inviting comments.

Our online discussion veered off in several different directions, so I’ll try and pull together some of the threads.

Climate grief and hope

First to respond was fellow ClimateCultures member David Thorpe, who didn’t find the article helpful. For him, the important question is why some people care and some don’t — is it down to personality type? “It was common knowledge in the 60s about deforestation, air pollution, antibiotics overprescription — in the Daily Express, for God’s sake. We knew in the 70s about climate change.” Society was supposed to change and adapt to take account of these serious issues, but that never happened. If it’s down to personality, David feels, this makes him angry; that our fate can be sealed by a majority who don’t care.

Peter Sutton agreed: “It’s a fair point about personality types – it’s kind of like knowing that gaining weight is bad for your health but this one cream cake can’t be bad, can it? We are generally, as a society, as a species (?), bad at thinking long-term…”

Later, David asked: “Are certain types more likely to think long-term — and they’re in the minority? Is this behaviour characteristic necessarily connected to what levels in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Need’ have been satisfied?”

Abraham Maslow states that our most basic needs have to be satisfied first (food, sleep, safety), before the needs for love and companionship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation or creativity. The question here is: can certain personality types look beyond these personal needs to global or societal needs, perhaps far in the future (as climate change has been perceived to be)? Some artists work at a perilous level of neglect of at least some of the more fundamental needs, yet still produce great art.

Caroline New was less sure about the robustness of the concepts of personality type and Maslow’s hierarchy, regarding their explanatory power. She preferred to reframe the question in terms of social positions and early experiences.

Caroline agrees that climate disengagement is partly fuelled by the psychological difficulty of taking on the reality of climate change; however, she believes that feelings of climate grief and dread are not inevitable responses, but are re-runs of what we felt as infants, before the age where they could be cognitively recorded as memories. This makes them harder to process and heal from. Climate change brings it all up: the powerlessness, the overwhelm, the impossibility of understanding a massive, out-of-control reality. Caroline mentioned experiencing the same feelings of grief, dread and fear when visiting Auschwitz or Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Yet these events have already happened.

For Caroline this means that “If we realise that our childhood sufferings make us vulnerable, we can separate today’s reality from those old injuries, and welcome the fact that we have the chance … to join with others … to take action in the present that will affect what happens to humanity for thousands of years.”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'. Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Psychologies of change

Others framed the answers in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter Barker said: “Some of the psychological reactions described in the article sound like PTSD, which can affect activists who work tirelessly on issues they really care about.”

Peter B believes that while campaigners are encouraged to focus on the important positive benefits of a low carbon economy, this fails to communicate effectively. He believes that humans are programmed to respond to threats and cautionary tales. “News is usually about trouble, danger, threats. Things we need to know about to survive. I think a clear picture is required to say, ‘This is what’s coming unless we get our shit together.’ I know it may turn some people off but the current message simply isn’t working.” He added that to tackle cognitive dissonance — the phenomenon of simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas — we need to be even clearer about cause and effect.

Emma Turnbull responded with thoughts about cognitive dissonance. The belief that “carrying on business-as-usual is viable; we can act without consequence”, is familiar, comforting, inherited and reinforced through generations. It conflicts with the other belief that “climate change is real and we need to radically change our lives”, which is an invitation to the unknown and to some harsh realisations and shakes our sense of security and societal structures. But she added that although this “second belief is like waking up in hell … it offers personal growth opportunities and collective evolution.”

Emma added: “I think it is useful at some level to acknowledge the potential losses from leaving behind the old systems and beliefs that have served us before now, because it helps to understand what needs to be replaced in new systems and culture e.g. emotional needs, personal purpose and value, and ritual or life course.”

She also mentioned PTSD, but in terms of society rather than the individual. “I think climate issues are deeply related to PTSD on a global level. Having an ambient sense of danger on a daily basis which is so powerful and seemingly beyond the power of an individual to correct, how can that not impact us all? When people are traumatised they have different reactions to it and can freeze when there’s a danger that there are no signs of escape from; dissociation allows them to zone out in a fog of denial. From researching the subject of trauma, I’d say that the way to help people move out of trauma and into a position of healing/action is to help them build emotional resources and a sense of safety. This is where I’d say positive narratives have a helpful role alongside more sobering storytelling.”  

For my part, I referred to feelings of climate grief and powerlessness, and the power of communication. “The more people talk about climate change, and admit their feelings of grief and helplessness, maybe this gives permission to other people to acknowledge these feelings too … I think we can draw on other social movements such as civil rights, homosexuality, etc — people talking and writing and acting — for some kind of roadmap … Depression can be a result of knowing something is terrible but not being able to do anything about it. So, in the West we have an epidemic of depression and other mental ill-health … could it have something to do with helplessness in the face of planetary destruction?”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Lesley Richardson quoted Denise Baden at the University of Southampton, who runs greenstories.org. “Denise argues that disaster movies etc haven’t worked — they cause us to bury our heads — while positive stories inspire and help us imagine the future we want via heroes and role models.”

Emma Giffard agreed that “Humans are hardwired to respond to threats but are much more able to respond to short-term immediate threats than distant ones”, recommending an article on the Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change.

Emma G also recommended Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course on the psychology. Only about 10% of ‘denialists’ are actually truly denying the science, while behind the other 90% there are other factors which relate to internal values.

David and Caroline also discussed mindsets, which influence expectations and behaviour. David wondered about how to change mindsets, citing placebo and nocebo effects. We know little about these effects, he said, but he’s keen on the use of shame, which has been effective with “paedophilia, drink-driving, smoking and seat-belt wearing, alongside evidence, public discussion/education around the long-term consequences … and legislation. Shame is a powerful peer-group influencer. Shaming frequent fliers, for example, could work in a similar way, but to work it needs a certain critical mass. Reaching that takes a long time. We’re getting there with plastics use.”

Caroline agreed there’s a place for shame, but as a major political mechanism it’s double-edged, since it draws on social disapproval and low self-esteem. She thought concepts of justice — “We have the right to require our government to formulate policies that protect us and future generations — and exemplary hopeful actions — see Plan B Earth” — are a better way forward.

Writing for change 

Finally, we touched on how these complex issues inform our writing, particularly in fiction. What is our motivation in writing about climate change, or our approach? How do the responses of hope vs grief play out in character and plot? What do we want to achieve — if anything?

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Peter B: “For me, the main motivation to write about climate change is to produce action. To alert, alarm even, people into responding. It may be fiction but it’s a way of engaging your reader’s imagination to the realities we are, or soon will be, facing, to avoid sleepwalking into disaster. If nothing else, at least we can be awake when it all goes tits up. I don’t write about climate change, but a world in which it is happening with my characters living and dealing with disintegrating systems — ecological, economic and social. The central plots revolve around my characters trying, in their own different ways, to survive (grief) or effect major change (hope).”

David: “From a narrative point of view, addressing the issues of feelings of powerlessness or apathy in the face of something as huge as climate change, one must remember that most people do not make a dramatic change in their lives until they have to. A convincing narrative would explore the significance and nature of this tipping point … Additionally, I would wish to explore this idea — for which there is some scientific evidence — that a certain level of stress in an emergency seems to paralyse most people … but there is a significant minority who are energised … and can take charge and try to rescue the situation.”

Emma T: “I want to inspire hope and action through positive visions of sustainable futures. I like to share with others the magic and healing I experience through deeply connecting with nature and contribute stories that reconnect us with the land. I also write to explore the trauma that is at the heart of and driving issues like climate change.”

Peter S: “I’m currently reading You are not human, by Simon Lancaster, which is all about metaphor; and he mentions this study, Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change, which investigates how language — and specifically the metaphors we use — affects how people perceive climate change. I’ve always drawn inspiration from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and as writers we should be hyperaware of what language we use, especially when our writing is a political act (but then, isn’t all writing a political act?)”

Emma G: “My novel is basically all about the cognitive dissonance required to be fully cognisant of environmental issues and still function as a modern human — it’s basically about the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health. Just need someone to publish it, that’s all …”

And I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response. Seeking publication…


Find out more

Bristol Climate Writers meet monthly in central Bristol, for discussion and critique, and to plan public workshops. There are roughly twenty members, writing poetry, science, nature, short stories or novels. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow @BrisClimWrit and @tomkins_deborah

You can follow some of the BCW members mentioned here at their websites: Caroline New Pete Sutton David Thorpe 

Bristol Climate Writers is running a writing workshop, Finding the Positive: Dystopias and Utopias in a Changing Climate, on Sunday 28 October 2018 as part of Bristol Festival of Literature – see our Events calendar

Peter Kalmus’ article, The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, appeared in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world (9th August 2018): “Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing — but also connection and love for those things.” You can follow Peter on Twitter: @ClimateHuman and his website: becycling.life

Other resources mentioned in this post include:

Brian Kateman’s article, Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change, appeared on Columbia University’s State of the Planet site (9th January 2012). 

Simon Lancaster’s book, You are not Human, is published by Biteback Publishing (2018).

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was described in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. There is a useful guide to the original concept and recent developments, by Saul McLeod at Simply Psychology (updated 2018).

The free online course, Making Sense of Climate Denial, is provided by the University of Queensland (and is featured on our Anthropocene Learning page, alongside other free online courses).

Greenstories.org was a short story competition organised by the University of Southampton in 2018, and the anthology of winning stories, Resurrection Trust, will be published in 2019. The site has a section of useful story ideas and resources.

Finally, you might like to read a couple of other articles and an illustrated story relating to climate grief, which I discovered while bringing Deborah’s post to the site:

Jennifer Atkinson’s article, Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake, which appeared in High Country News (29th May 2018). Atkinson teaches environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, and after watching her students “struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years … decided to offer a new seminar on ‘Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.’ When registration opened, every seat filled. But after the local media began reporting on the class, a flood of derisive emails and phone calls poured into my office, and the newspaper comment sections filled up with responses mocking today’s ‘absurd. college courses and the students who attend them.” Despite this, “direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow.”

Writer Meehan Crist’s Besides, I’ll be dead is her review in London Review of Books (22nd February 2018) of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World. Crist raises a psychological paradigm of ‘ambiguous loss’, introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Boss when studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. Boss “coined the term to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding. Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. … Grief is stalled by uncertainty.”

The illustrations throughout this ClimateCultures post come from the graphic story Climate Grief, The emotional reality of global warmingby artist Perrin Ireland. Perrin works with scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists to tell their science stories through animations, visual essays, and infographics. You can find the full story and more of her work at www.experrinment.com 
'Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
‘Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

And the passage from Joanna Macey that Perrin quotes in her story come from Macey’s lifelong activism in The Work that Reconnects, which began in the 1970s as “despair and empowerment” work, evolved in Deep Ecology and has become a network. 

***

What do you think?

Do you experience Climate Grief? Do you have other ways of exploring, explaining or addressing the issues that Deborah and her fellow Bristol Climate Writers have raised here? ClimateCultures would like to publish further accounts and discussions on climate grief and other responses to our environmental and climate predicaments; do use the Contact Form to get in touch!

The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Wide Sargasso Sea, the classic novel by Jean Rhys: her prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and a story of blurred, alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference in race and gender.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes   


A copy of Wide Sargasso Sea goes to Nancy Campbell for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover. Photograph: Francoise Lacroix
Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Photograph: Francoise Lacroix © 2000 Source: Penguin Books

The Fall

Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.

Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.

One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?

The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.

No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones — more cunning, that’s all.’

And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.

Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.

For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.

I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.

An alien heat

Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”

It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.

They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Artist: unknown

Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.

Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:

‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’

‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’

She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.

She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the one she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”

It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.

Sargasso sea — a dangerous place

In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:

Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.

And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:

The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:

I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’

She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.

What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.

It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’

Sargasso Sea
Sargasso Sea
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”

More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.

But what are you doing here, you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.

Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.

And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:

The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.

 


Find out more

Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday FeatureSarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”

The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”

Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”

A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”

In the Path of Its Beam

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Annie Dillard’s 1974 wonder-filled book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A classic, it nonetheless resists easy classification and explores, in equal measure, horror and beauty in nature: fixing both with Dillard’s hallmark unblinking stare.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


A copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek goes to Veronica Sekules for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is — was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account — a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley — the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting — how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' cover
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Tinker creek: two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later — looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” — Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it around for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the schoolyard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror — and both in abundance — is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow — “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” — is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Artist: Anna Maria Johnson
Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”


Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.