The Words That Make Our Stories…

— approx reading time: 9 minutes

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'.

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.

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The Stories We Live By

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

I've been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it's been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses - texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports - in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change...

The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.

Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

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Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

This Members' Post comes from illustrator and writer Mat Osmond, who I met at art.earth's In Other Tongues summit in June. It's accompanied by powerful paintings by artist Meinrad Craighead, who is the focus of the piece.

Mat says, "This paper, which I delivered at Schumacher College’s Landscape, Language and the Sublime summit in June 2016, is the first part of a longer piece about Craighead. Part two will discuss the connections between Craighead’s art and her lifelong devotion to the Black Madonna."

“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
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 its 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
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, 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?" 

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

 

Taking the World for a Walk

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

I encountered the Deep Time Walk app through a chance conversation at art.earth's creative summit, In Other Tongues, in June. I was fascinated to give it a go on my local woodland walk, and have been returning to it for repeat exposures. Here is my review of the app.

“We will see how one thing jumps out of another thing, the second thing completely different from the first thing. We will see impossibility. Second steps may be unlikely but first steps are impossible! But impossibility isn’t a problem. It doesn’t stop anything, it only maybe slows it down. It is a weak wall; everything is always pushing it down, striding straight through it.”    – The Fool

“You came from this! Every one of your senses developed in relation to this Earth. You smell because the Earth is smellable … You touch because the Earth is touchable. And you think because the Earth is thinkable. You and the Earth are two ends of the same thing. Only you can split them, by imagination. Or rather, by a failure of imagination. Failing to imagine what is actually the case.”   – The Scientist

 

 

3500 – 3400 million years ago

This is a walk through 4.6 billion years of Deep Time of Earth’s history towards Now. A walk taken by a Fool and a Scientist, trading insights, knowledge and deep questions as they go – and along the way they bring us into their explorations of life and our world. This blend of geology and biology is the story of us and all the others that have made the long journey before and beside us. Of how non-living and living matter shape and adapt to each other, freighting oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and other essential elements through their loops and feedbacks. Travel is important to this story – it is the story – and a walk with expert guides is the perfect vehicle.

The team behind the Deep Time Walk App has just celebrated reaching their crowdfunding target, matching Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the project further. But the app is available now and is well worth exploring. The first interactive mobile app of its kind, Deep Time Walk accompanies you along Earth’s entire geological timeline (so far), and can be taken anywhere in the world – in countryside or urban settings. Moving at a scale of 1 metre to 1,000,000 years, its two guides and a third narrator take in the cosmic beginnings and shape-shifting early aeons of the planet, through the mysterious emergence of life and the long struggle to multicellular organisation, and the coevolution of life with oceans and atmosphere and land. This is a creative and expert overview, combining sciences and humanities to take in the grand and the minuscule scales of what we are made from and who we are: the biosphere amongst hydro-cryo-litho-pedo-atmo-spheres.

Deep Time Walk App 2017 © Deep Time Walk team, http://www.deeptimewalk.org

A new walking companion

If you want to enjoy a walk of a few miles then you’ll probably choose a new walking companion with some care – especially if they are going to do all the talking! So a guide like this requires good writing, sympathetic narration and a high quality production. Fortunately, Deep Time Walk boasts all three and will enhance your stroll through either a familiar landscape or a first-time encounter. I’ve listened in full three times: on a walk through my local woods; a trek to my nearest train station and then on the journey itself; and as a conventional audiobook at home. There was something new each time, such is the wealth of knowledge packed into the story. And the app team’s decision to involve three voices – three characters in narrator, scientist and fool – enhances the impact of all that information. And the conversational tone engages the listener as a fourth character, which is key to making an experience that rewards repeated listening. No surprises that the text is brought to life by professional actors: Peter Marinker, Chipo Chung and Paul Hilton are voices you may recognise from many radio and TV productions. 

2000 – 1900 million years ago

Time and the body: working on a human scale

Pacing is important here, and although the walk takes you at a steady one-metre-to-the-megayear rate – calibrated to your pace when you enter your height into the app – it is able to take in varying rhythms of geological and biological change. Partly this is down to well-timed pauses along the way, as you’re encouraged to stop and enjoy the view while the characters explore key transitions in detail or they review the journey so far to emphasise key points. Mainly, it’s down to the quality of the writing and the interplay between the scientist and the fool, which strikes a balance between ‘informative’ and ‘entertaining’ as the content requires. Fool and scientist are far more than the stereotypes they could easily have been cast as, showing emotional depth and at times either supporting the other through doubts or picking up on their assumptions. In other words: human beings. And, throughout, the changing planet is itself treated as a personality. Only very occasionally does this risk straying into ‘Mother Earth’ speak, but never steps too far. And this is, after all, the territory of Gaia – the Earth-System-as-lifeform metaphor, which can sometimes revert into Goddess talk. If that’s your thing then you will find the occasional references to her pleasing; if it’s not, they are too occasional to get in the way of the fascinating science and the real wonder of how and what this world is, and how we have come to understand so much and yet so little of it. If you can’t take a good metaphor for a walk, who can you take?

1600 – 1500 million years ago

The app comes with a glossary, which you can access at various points through the story to learn more about the terms you are hearing. As far as I could see, there’s no way to scroll through this independently of the narration, which would have been handy at times when I wanted check with something later. So, if you want to know more about the solar system’s Gas Giants then you’ll need to check that when they crop up during your few metres walking through the “arrival of liquid water” (partly on asteroids swung into Earth through the orbital slingshots of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune); the glossary then moves on to consider this Late Heavy Bombardment in more detail. But you won’t want to keep interrupting your walk to check the screen and pause the narration, so the glossary is best explored later on; you can set the app to ‘walk free’ mode and just sit back to take the tour with an eye on the screen. With that in mind, it’s a shame the glossary can’t be searched independently on the app, and doesn’t appear on the website, because it provides a lot of extra detail in a concise and very readable format. Maybe that is an area that the new crowdfunding support will help the team to develop.

1300 – 1200 million years ago

I’d also have liked to see part of the narration encouraging me to connect what I was hearing to what I could see around me on the walk. That couldn’t be truly interactive of course – at least in this phase of the app’s development – but it would be possible to pose questions or give pointers to things we might encounter on a typical urban or rural walk. Thinking of the natural geology that we’ve transformed into buildings, roads and other infrastructure, for example, do we ever stop to consider how long ago the rocks and minerals were laid down, the journeys they have been on as volcanic, tectonic and weathering activities have shaped and reshaped them? And my woodland walk sparked off many associations with what I was hearing about the development of photosynthesis and the accelerating diversity of early life. 

Deep Time Walk App © Deep Time Walk team
http://www.deeptimewalk.org

But these are very minor issues compared with the ambition of the project to bring Deep Time to life or, as the creators say, “make the unfathomable, fathomable”. It’s an ambition that this beautifully designed app delivers on. I will be very interested to see how it develops further with the new funding – and how artists and others make use of it as a creative stimulus or maybe a tool in their own explorations of time and change.

And the last section of the walk? The final metre is a million years, just like all the others, so that’s a mere 20 cm for the time our species has been on Earth, give or take. We leave the last Ice Age just 1.3 cm behind our Now, and we’re just a fingernail deep into shaping the Anthropocene… Where next?

Find out more

You can read about the history of the app and the team of scientists, writers and artists behind it, at deeptimewalk.org and watch their Crowdfunder video. You can download the app for IOS or Android via the Deep Time Walk website or direct from Apple Store or Google Play.

In this Aeon article from October 2016 David Farrier, a literary scholar at Edinburgh University, explores the meeting of Deep Time and the Anthropocene, where our “need to imagine deep time in light of our present-day concerns is more vital than ever. Deep time is not an abstract, distant prospect, but a spectral presence in the everyday.”

Back in 2014 – or about a micron or two ago –  the Smithsonian magazine reviewed Imagining Deep Time, an art exhibition then showing at the US National Academy of Sciences, and you can see a gallery of the images.

Questioning Deep Time? Space for creative thinking... 

"For you, how is Deep Time revealed most clearly in the human body - your body? Through its interactions with the physical world - moving, breathing, sensing? Through its development over your lifetime, or its prehistory (and future history) across generations? Through its consciousness, and the dreams and visions you create with it?" 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.

 

A People of the Fall

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

Rediscovering William Golding's novel, The Inheritors, in an Oxfam bookshop not only provided the first 'book prize' offered for a Members' Post on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects (see Julien Masson's excellent contribution: Three Objects #2), but an opportunity to reread this classic a couple of decades after I first discovered it. Here is my review of this essential reimagining of a key transition in the story of humanity.

In his 1955 classic, The Inheritors, William Golding famously reimagined the lost world of the Neanderthals at the moment when the very last of them were losing it. His family of hominids – the People – encounter the incoming Homo sapiens – the New People – and only bitter, unprecedented experience can tell them what this will mean.

Almost the entire novel is experienced through the eyes and other senses of Lok, one of the family group making the seasonal journey inland from their winter coastal grounds to the forested uplands. Here, they shelter in a rocky gap in the forest: an ancestral cave, barely more than a recess in the cliff terrace overlooking a glacier-fed river, with its mystery-giving ice field above and deadly waterfall below.

Cover illustration to The Inheritors
Artist: Neil Gower © 2011
Source: http://www.neilgower.com/william-golding/

Golding worried that his portrayal of Neanderthals wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny. “I haven’t done any research for the book at all,” he warned his editor, “just brooded over what I know myself.” His editor replied that any expert’s suggestions “would be the wrong sort” and published the book as it stood. A later essay by Golding’s daughter Judy – marking the 60th anniversary of the novel – cast light on just what it was that the author had been brooding over:

‘Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of the second world war. Postwar austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting. Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (“the people”) and the group of Homo sapiens (“the New People”). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.’

Judy Golding claims that her father’s sense of guilt – “not only over the people he himself had killed … but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war” was also a kind of hunger, one that consumes humanity.

Rereading The Inheritors after 25 years, I was surprised at first by the extent to which it makes for quite hard reading. It’s beautifully written, as I remember with all his novels I’d read in my twenties; but I’d forgotten just how Golding used the restrictions of language to convey the world through the thought-images of our distant cousins – distant in time, and also in consciousness. Through the eyes of Lok, his people’s social and natural world (with no distinction possible between these aspects of being and belonging) is rendered as timelessly familiar to him and his family, while unfamiliar to us. The People’s lives are practically tool-free – every need of a sick elder for a drink means a trip by someone down to the river to fetch water that has to be cupped in their hands all the way back up to the cave. Every step and act is dictated by the need to eat, drink, shelter and avoid the predatory hyenas and cats. Our reading of their life is difficult, as we struggle at times to make out what it is that Lok and the others are seeing. When Lok spies the New People drinking water as if it is being given to them by “a wobbly animal” that one of them holds under her arm, and which goes flat and empty when she accidentally drops it on the ground, he doesn’t grasp that they’ve used an animal skin as a container, and we don’t see at first that this is what he has witnessed.

Darkness visible

Much of what Lok witnesses makes sense to us (and, too late, to him) in retrospect, and also through the reactions of his mate, Fa. She seems to grasp more about these strange new arrivals – of their darker side, especially. When Lok persists in not understanding what has become of their daughter, Fa cannot explain (or bring herself to) but her dumbfounded reactions to his ignorance are moments of heart-breaking tragedy, as we come to apprehend something that is never shown, stated or explained. This truth about the New People – us – is not explicable, because it is not comprehensible. Golding hides “the darkest event in the book” from us, just as Fa hides it from Lok as they huddle together in a treetop looking down on the drunken, violent rituals of the famished humans after their unsuccessful hunting trip.

Golding gave his Neanderthals basic language, which they use sparingly, but a rich sensory and imaginal understanding of their world. Much of their communication takes place in the sharing of pictures, a form of telepathy that occasionally helps to transfer novel ideas from person to person. Lacking a strong sense of past or future, their eternal present is a tragic illusion for the People; only we know what is coming and what the changes will mean – for them, and for us.

It may be unhelpful to fixate on the People as Neanderthals – and therefore to worry about the accuracy of Golding’s portrayal of them. Clearly, the story acts as a recasting of the Biblical Fall. A central symbol in the novel is the waterfall. Always present as an image of force and danger for the forest dwellers, it plays a literal role in their ending. But it’s also a source of realisation for Lok in its new role as metaphor, when he starts to see things through that novel form of understanding: one thing in the guise of another. It’s this transition from proto- to fully human – from imagining to rationalising, inhabiting to remaking – that marks our self-exile from the Eden of a world that lives around and inside us, the inheritors.

Darkness Visible: H sapiens enters the Long Barrow, West Kennet
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2016

Nothing stands against them

Fa goes missing after a clash with the incomers and, for the first time in his life – and in his picture of the life of his people – Lok is alone in the forest. He can hear the sounds and shouts of the New People in the distance, as they cut their way through the trees to travel uphill with the hollow logs they have used to cross the river and which they are taking with them into the interior. The noise diminishes:

‘He could hear no more than the voice of the old man when it rose in command or fury. Down here where the forest changed to marsh and the sky opened over bushes, straggling willow and water, there was no other sign of their passage. The woodpigeons talked, preoccupied with their mating; nothing was changed … All things profited and thrived in a warm windlessness.’

But Lok is now able to contemplate this seemingly unchanged scene with “a new head”, knowing now that appearances are deceptive; in fact everything has changed, thanks to the newcomers’ violent nature. His own change includes the ability to see likenesses he’s never been conscious of before.

‘The new head knew that certain things were gone and done with like a wave of the sea. It knew that the misery must be embraced painfully as a man might hug thorns to him and it sought to comprehend the new people from whom all the changes came … He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it … Now, in a convulsion of the understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption … they had emptied the gap of its people with little more than a turn of their hands.

“They are like the river and the fall, they are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.”‘

Whatever the author’s intention in casting the pre-Fall people as simple, loving and unaggressive scavenger-gatherers (they never kill animals for food but do take kills discarded by predators, for which “there is no blame”), inseparable from their environment, while the New People hunt with weapons, fight among themselves and walk in fear through the forest, Golding also showed their common humanity. Both groups’ lives are centred on family, emotional understanding of their community and a need for security. This tension between commonality and ‘Othering’ must have had great resonance in a world torn open by total war, death camp genocides, forced retreat from imperial self-delusions of ‘manifest destiny’ and mounting Cold War fears of apocalypse. The resonance should be even greater for us, in the Anthropocene – a new age for the new people – where these collective insanities shapeshift and accelerate into even greater forms.

Perhaps the old people here are more a mark of our lost connection with the more-than-human world than of the origins of our species’ apparent drive to exterminate (merely) its own competing sub-cultures. With their red hair and mode of walking bent forward, Golding’s ‘Neanderthals’ perhaps seem more like orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay); their gentleness and too-late understanding of what the New People are capable of chimes with a picture of how far Homo sapiens is prepared to go to cut itself out of the web of life by cutting down the web itself.

Malay Archipelago Orang-Utan attacked by Dyaks
Woodcut by Joseph Wolf, 1869
Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File%3AMalay_Archipelago_Orang-Utan_attacked_by_Dyaks.jpg

Fa listens patiently to Lok’s assertion that their daughter is still with her kidnappers, carried off with the canoes now being rolled uphill on felled tree trunks:

‘Fa looked mournfully at his face. She pointed to a smear on the smoothed earth that had been a slug.

They have gone over us like a hollow log. They are like a winter.”‘

The inheritors upstream

Once the novel is done with the story of the people of the forest, the final chapter is for the inheritors, and we see the world through their eyes. They are paddling upstream, free of the forest that they feared for its natural perils and its red-haired devils. The protagonist now is Tuami, a hunter and a rival of the old man who leads them as shaman. Also with them in their boats, alongside their passions, superstitions and cleverness with thoughts and tools, lies a baby – another captive from the forest people. The red-haired devil-boy, looked on with mixed amusement and repulsion by the inheritors, is protected by the dominant but childless woman of the group. Tuami watches the comical play of the adoptive mother and infant and feels the inspiration he has been lacking for the ivory knife handle he is shaping.

‘The sun shone on the [woman’s] head and the [baby’s] rump and quite suddenly everything was all right again and the sands had sunk back to the bottom of the pool. The rump and the head fitted each other and made a shape you could feel with your hands. They were waiting in the rough ivory of the knife-haft that was so much more important than the blade. They were an answer, the frightened, angry love of the woman and the ridiculous, intimidating rump that was wagging at her head, they were a password.’

A password to where? To a distant future where part of our inheritance is the result of an interbreeding between one branch of humanity and another – between two aspects of humanity – and maybe some hope for a tempering of the fearful and violent separation of culture from nature?

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Judy Golding’s article in the Guardian marking the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication offers many insights into the writing of her father’s novel, and the inspiration he took from his own family in portraying the family of forest people.

Novelist Penelope Lively’s rereading of the novel makes the connection between the book and the then recent discovery of the prehistoric art of the Lascaux cave painting which inspired the novel’s original cover. “The dustjacket has that leaping stag figure from the walls of the Lascaux cave – half human, half animal – which places it fair and square within the context of its inspiration. It is hard to realise now the effect that the discovery of the Lascaux paintings had in the post-war period: those images haunted the imagination of a generation. For some, like Golding, it was the implications of the images and their setting; for others, it was the extraordinary sophistication and perception of the paintings themselves.” (You can read more about Lascaux, its discovery and art, in this entry by Emma Groeneveld in the Ancient History Encyclopedia).

This blog by science writer James Kingsland at Plastic Brain points out some of the problems with Golding’s novel as a literal representation of the Neanderthals (but its truthfulness in the broad sweep) – and echoes a feeling that reading Lok and Fa as more distant primate relatives could be helpful.

 

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