Ecopoetikon: Global Ecopoetries for a Cultural Tipping Point

Ecopoet Helen Moore celebrates global ecopoetries through a new project gathering poets from Global South and North. Ecopoetikon offers a powerful indicator of intersecting crises and inspiration for a tipping point in our relationship with the living world.


1,410 words: estimated reading time = 5.5 minutes


Are we yet at a cultural tipping point, which makes conversations about climate change and environmental degradation “many, various, and unavoidable”? Doubtless this is the work of contributing artists to ClimateCultures, and it’s the vision of British ecopoet Caleb Parkin, who sees poetry “with its scalar shifts and ability to hold multiple perspectives and ambiguities” as being uniquely placed within the public imagination “to support the representation of massively distributed temporospatial (time/space) violences to the entire biosphere”.

Caleb’s insight is taken from a statement he wrote for Ecopoetikon, a new online showcase of global ecopoetries, which was launched in September 2023. It aims to provide a powerful poetic indicator of how ecological and intersecting social crises are affecting people across the world, and as such, adds significantly to these unavoidable conversations. Caleb is one of twenty ecopoets featured on the site, which I’ve been co-curating over the past year. His contribution includes his richly textural poem Almanac of Lunar Songs — a poem “inspired by human and more-than-human lunar behavioural influences – from microorganisms to ‘supermoon baby booms’ [, which] weaves through the various names given to the full moons each month” and written to be performed under Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’ in Bristol Cathedral. Almanac of Lunar Songs was a Bristol City Poet collaborative commission, with Miranda Lynn Barnes.

March

The plough moon brings on spring, softened soils. Equinox moon.
Longer days, last of winter, earth’s movement emerging. Worm moon.
Earthworms surface, converge on winter’s wastings, fertile, gleaming.
In like a lion, out like a lamb, March brings the wind moon, crow moon.
Sweetness seeps from the birch and the maple beneath the sugar moon,
sap moon. How it glows in the half-light. How we ache towards the solstice.

With each ecopoet nominated on the basis that they demonstrate commitment and creative innovation in their practice, the site is currently showcasing the work of poets from Australia, Botswana, Colombia, Estonia, India, Italy, Mauritius, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, the Philippines, the UK, and the US, and offers a rich tapestry of perspectives.

Global ecopoetries: a network of solidarity

Although the definitions of ecopoetry remain contested, at Ecopoetikon we define it as poetry written with engaged ecological and social consciousness. For us, ecopoetry should be informed by a level of ecoliteracy, an awareness that we live within ecosystems and in reciprocal interaction with the more-than-human world. We also see the intertwining social and ecological crises as having the same roots —  i.e., globalised, industrial, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism, and materialism. And more deeply, as a crisis of perception and imagination, emerging from a paradigm of separation: human from Nature and Nature from culture.

Ecopoetikon was originally inspired by a student interview conducted by Kathryn Alderman with Craig Santos Perez, an acclaimed ecopoet from the Pacific Island of Guam. In late 2022, Perez called for poets from the Global North to read and support poets from the Global South, and to teach their work, and so the idea for a ‘world ecopoetry share’ was born. Categorising countries according to their economic and developmental status, as in the ‘Global North’/’South’ binary, is problematic; however, Ecopoetikon’s ethos is more broadly one of building a network of solidarity, and transcending Eurocentrism and the Western literary canon to highlight less privileged voices.

Rina Garcia Chua from the Philippines is another of our featured poets, and she writes of growing up in Metro Manila, where she experienced a typhoon that forced her to “swim and walk in flooded highways when it dumped a month’s worth of rain in just a few hours.” One of the three poems I selected for her webpage is titled 113 Submerged Reefs, and visually reveals contested territory in the South China Sea, with oil represented as an omnipresent but less visible text within the poem-collage.

Global ecopoetries: Showing Rina Garcia Chua's poem '113 Submerged Reefs'
‘113 Submerged Reefs’ by Rina Garcia Chua, featured in Ecopoetikon, first published in g u e s t 17 (2019) and The Global South 19.1 (2023).

Tjawangwa Dema from Botswana touches on the fraught landscape of Elephant populations and expresses right relationship with the forest in their poem Commons:

Here we gather
blistered tongue to blistered tongue and say
no one owns the forest or its flycatchers
nor its trout lilies or lichen. No one

And Zheng Xiaoqiong, whose poems are beautifully translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman, finds her inspiration among the trees, plants, birds, and snakes of Mt. Baiyun, and from factory-work in Guangdong. In Time, wild Nature is contrasted with the factory, where she herself worked from the age of twenty-one, witnessing how “workers are inflicted with occupational illnesses such as pneumoconiosis, dermatitis, lung cancer …”

a lonely bird hides itself in the darkness of the lychee grove
the darkness overwhelms the red of the lychees, and the dark branches
turn even darker, the birdcalls have faded, and here
the roar of the hardware factory continues its banging unabated …

Decolonising canon and curriculum

Who should have the power to determine which poems are worth reading? Conscious of the literary gatekeepers who have often raised obstacles to more politically engaged work, including my own, Ecopoetikon’s editors are aware of the opportunity that this online platform offers to transcend political borders and to include more diverse voices.

We aim to avoid exclusivity by including ecopoets who have been nominated by others on the basis of their commitment and creative innovation in their practice, and the editorial team welcomes nominations of ecopoets whose work we’ve yet to discover. In featuring poets from across the globe, we’re also aware that some may not define themselves as ‘ecopoets’, because an ecological worldview is inherent in their culture, and evident in their traditional ecological knowledge.

Funded by the University of Gloucestershire’s School of Creative Arts, and built by student web designer Ardeshir Shojaei, Ecopoetikon features three search tools, one of which is thematic. With poems grouped under ‘oceans’, ‘soil/agriculture’, ‘pollution/waste’, ‘indigeneity/roots’, ‘ecocide/extinctions’, ‘regeneration’, and ‘interspecies communication’, amongst other themes, this function readily provides material for research or learning across a range of disciplines. The site’s bespoke teaching resources, available to subscribers, offer writing prompts too. Over the coming years, the project team plans to evaluate Ecopoetikon’s impacts, and welcomes feedback from site users.

In September 2023, we launched our global ecopoetries project both at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment at Liverpool University and at the 2nd Ecocultural Humanities Symposium at the University of Gloucestershire. In 2024, we aim to build awareness of the project through commissioned features, social media and in-person and online events – and again we welcome invitations to collaborate with other artists and networks. Look out for news of these, and why not book onto an evening with Ecopoetikon poets Helina Hookoomsing and Mario Petrucci, who will read at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival’s online ecopoetry event on June 3rd 2024?

A restorative act

When I ask the growing community of featured poets how they feel about the project, Mario Petrucci, whose extraordinary poem Heavy Water, a poem for Chernobyl I selected for the site, emails me saying: “In the ten-minutes-to-midnight cacophony of ignored environmental wake-up calls, Ecopoetikon sings a sweet yet piercingly persistent note. Too often, ecopoetry is met with neglectful silence; it’s profoundly encouraging to join this lively conversation.”

Working together we hope to see ecopoetry serving not only as a cultural tipping point, but also as a restorative act. A signpost towards regenerative cultures, where we value the Earth, and particularly the land/bioregion we inhabit, as our community. A future where the prefix ‘eco’ is no longer needed because all humans inhabit ecocentric and socially just cultures.


Find out more

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.

In celebrating global ecopoetries, Ecopoetikon aims to offer equal voice and representation to established ecopoets from around the world. Based in the Creative Arts at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK, Ecopoetikon is a developing research project that showcases a diverse international network of ecopoets through an online mapping project. You can find poems from a growing network of ecopoets around the world, including those mentioned in Helen’s post: Caleb Parkin’s Almanac of Lunar SongsRina Garcia Chua’s 113 Submerged Reefs; Tjawangwa Dema’s Commons; Zheng Xiaoqiong’s Time (translated by Eleanor Goodman); Mario Petrucci’s Heavy Water, a poem for Chernobyl.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival, launched in 2011, offers an annual 10-day programme of live literature events. The online ecopoetry event with Ecopoetikon is on June 3rd 2024.

Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins


Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

“Where Have All The Birds Gone?”

Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.


820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes


My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.

Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.

Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.

Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.

If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.

Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses

Bird species in decline. Showing "Where Have All The Birds Gone?" Artwork by Michael Gresalfi
“Where Have All The Birds Gone?” Artwork by Michael Gresalfi © 2023

This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.

I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.

Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.

I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.

I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.

The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:

*Where Have All The Birds Gone?

*In the past 50 years 30% lost in N. America

*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970

*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED

*CLIMATE CHANGE

*HABITAT LOSS

*CO2 INCREASING

*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR

*INSECT LOSS

*PESTICIDES

*HERBICIDES

*FERTILIZERS

*MONOCULTURES

*DEFORESTATION

*POLLUTION

*CATS

*TOO DRY

*TOO WET

*TOO HOT

*TOO MUCH!

My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.

I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.

Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.


Find out more

You can see Michael’s video ‘Our Changing Planet’ and his large installation “What Man Has Wrought” in our Creative Showcase feature — along with more than 25 examples of other ClimateCultures members’ work.

“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”

Michael Gresalfi

Michael Gresalfi

An artist who seeks to incorporate art with climate change data, and whose work in encaustic medium, glass paint, oils and acrylics includes 'Our Changing Planet'.

Giving Voice to the Nonhuman

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.


2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes


A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
— Dorothea Lange

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, to listen to the underwater 'ice voices' during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES, created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant for the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, Canada, from 24 Feb to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, Edwige Leblanc listens to the underwater ‘ice voices’ during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.

By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.

Sending the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023
Close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023.

Bringing back the nonhuman voice

Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.

The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:

“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”

I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.

This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.

A beauty filled with dread 

Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.

Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023

I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.

Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.

Images 1-9: Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023. Click images for full size.

This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…

But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.

A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Images 10-13 from the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photographs: Joan Sullivan © 2023. 10 A partial view of the installation, made up of eight triangular abstract photo sculptures representing the disappearing ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. 11 A visitor touches the braille text on one of the eight photographic ice sculptures. 12 A group from the Gaspesie chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps visits the installation. 13 Gaëtan Banville, who is blind and a member of the Lower Saint Lawrence chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps, reads the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto the eight photographic ice sculptures. Click images for full size.

The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.

Showing a publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.
A publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.

I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.


Find out more

‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts. 

Les artistes remercient le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien financier, et tous ses partneraires pour l’appui précieux : Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Centre VU, Engramme et La Chambre Blanche. / The artists thank the Canada Council for the Arts for its financial support, and all its partners for their valuable support: Center d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Center VU, Engramme and La Chambre Blanche.

Le Devoir, Quebec’s largest independent French-language newspaper, published Faire parler les glaces pour montrer que le climat s’effrite, a review of ‘La voix des glaces’, in February 2023. The Vie des arts magazine article that described Joan’s abstract images as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (“of a beauty filled with dread”) is Un vent du fleuve : expositions au Centre d’art de Kamouraska (A wind from the river: exhibitions at the Kamouraska Art Center: 19th September 2020).

You can see more of Joan’s series ‘Je suis fleuve’/’Becoming River’ and ‘If I were a tree’ at her website. 

You can read Joan’s previous ClimateCultures post, Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, a joint review of After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022).

The 2019-20 Black Summer in Australia was covered by Reuters in Australia, scarred by bushfires, on high alert for dangerous summer (19th September 2023) and by the Guardian in The black summer bushfires killed 3 billion animals. They are our relatives; they deserve to be mourned (31st March 2023).

Amy Brady interviewed Amitav Ghosh for the Chicago Review of Books: The Uncanniness of Climate Change (18th September 2019). Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable was published by University of Chicago Books.

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A photographer, writer and farmer who focuses on climate change and whose abstract, phenomenological approach to photography expresses her ecoanxiety and gives voice to the nonhuman.

The Start of Something Going Wrong

Ecopoet Helen Moore reviews Her Whereabouts, a new collection from fellow poet Joanna Guthrie, whose accumulated acts of noticing and subtle inferences weave her mother’s debilitating strokes with ecological loss in the climate crisis into a poetic memoir.


1,130 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


In a striking second collection, Joanna Guthrie’s often filmic work forms a poetic memoir, chronicling the aftermath of two debilitating strokes suffered by her mother. In Her Whereabouts, there is a steady accumulation of precise acts of noticing, with images created as handholds to chart a terrain of deep uncertainty, as the poet comes to terms with the severe injuries sustained to her mother’s brain. This imagery frequently connects with the natural world, and through this a thread of concern about the climate crisis is woven.

In ‘The start of something going wrong’, the second poem in the book, we read of an occurrence which reminds us of the moments prior to the onset of a tsunami:

It rained fish. This was the herald.
They thumped down on the hillside like silver blades
or loose tongues sliding whole from heads.

Guthrie also fuses the language of storms, particularly of lightning strokes, with the “dry heat that was a whole new season / day out day in by your shrill bed” (‘Indian Summer’). Inside and outside become merged in a new location, where the family’s focus is the mother, who occupies the centre of a labyrinth in which husband and children struggle to orientate themselves. And to process the emotional fall-out.

Acts of noticing: showing the cover of 'Her Whereabouts' by Joanne Guthrie
Photograph: Joanna Guthrie © 2023

Loss — the personal and the planetary

In ‘Gibbous, waning’ the moon is compared to “a wounded boat – / or else a balloon as it deflates”, which the poet comes to see as a mirror of her own experience: “it’s me who’s punctured, is the vessel on her side / the shrunk balloon.” Avoiding self-pity, Guthrie’s attention to detail delivers entirely unsentimental poems, which are nonetheless full of pathos. Her prose poem, ‘Synapse as muscle’, focuses on the habitual mothering patterns in her brain-damaged mother. While in the poem entitled ‘What aphasia said’, we read a series of non-sequiturs and neologisms, which result from ‘aphasia’, the language disorder caused by the strokes.

Her mother’s loss of language leads the poet to contemplate the role of the brain, which is brilliantly evoked as “a mothership / that grew itself in the dark”, and

A pinwheel emerging out of space
   sprouting a tail
its grey tunnels knitted by you only
   the cortex an intricate skullcap.
(‘Questions after the fact’) 

Ultimately, this inspires a new sense of her mother’s presence, which is found primarily in her eyes. But in searching for ‘her whereabouts’, Guthrie touches into Buddhist philosophy through the concept of ‘pativedha’ — “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” — which moves her contemplation into the realm of quantum physics, as she sees her mother as “a loose collection / of nature in flux.” And herself “unscrewed”, “part of myself this balloon / tethered to a roof.” (‘Tiramisu’)

Despite existing in states of flux and radical uncertainty, there is nevertheless a commitment born of love to walk the labyrinth with her mother, and to surrender to the process of being alongside all that’s unfolding. Inevitably, there are moments of despair, (‘Isn’t this the end’) and dissolution (‘Arctic ice wakes up as liquid’). These poems voice both personal and planetary dimensions, and through them a sense of the ecological self emerges, as the poet’s voice becomes one with the fragmenting ‘I’ voice of the Arctic ice:

I am leaving   a
        am whole chunk of a

        was whole chunk of a

Acts of noticing – learning from the more-than-human

Prolonged periods of uncertainty and waiting also yield heightened states of communion with the more-than-human world. Rooks. A stuffed Victorian Baboon. Cuckoo. Deer. A Chestnut tree for whom love is tenderly expressed. Amidst these touching poems, the title poem ‘Her whereabouts’ may be read as both a charting of the loss of her mother and the poet’s grief at ecological loss.

The loss shoots right down
to the feet, through some central shaft
like a flare descends a well, illuminating
mossy sides …

The named storms, which offer titles to poems (‘Irma’, ‘Dennis’), indicate the extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis. These Guthrie evokes as simultaneously relating to the family’s experience of a missing member:

soon a mouth will grin with
                                             missing teeth, its gap our gap

and on she rails, no home
             to go to, wired, pulling out
                                           posts    like    pins from a new hem.
(‘Irma’) 

The dream image of a house on fire but “burning so slowly there was time / to rescue every cup” additionally suggests both the personal and planetary, while a poem entitled ‘The emergency’ touches specifically on the poet’s experience as a climate activist, and the collective struggle to find adequate words to express what’s occurring. Here the image of a Brushtail Possum waving a burnt paw to a camera, “like it was showing its passport / or like, Look what you did!” becomes the most poignant way to communicate what the reader assumes to be the catastrophic Australian bushfires that occurred between 2019-20, and in which I was personally caught up.

Might I have understood this without my direct experience? Impossible to say. But subtle inference is certainly a hallmark of this collection, the power of which is cumulatively built. As the book draws to a close, there is unsurprisingly no resolution — just an ongoing state of precarity, “teetering / like a bone china jug on a ledge” (‘The lintel’). With this, however, come fearless love and compassion, along with a willingness to help. In the penultimate poem, ‘Human, standing’ — the title itself a poignant image of survival — there is also a sense of learning from the more-than-human world, as the soil is evoked as “a sacred, slow master.”

Note: In writing my review of Joanna’s book, I have wanted to stay true to my own ecopoetic practice of giving capital letters to the names of more-than-human Beings.


Find out more

Her Whereabouts by Joanna Guthrie is published by Pindrop Press. You can read two of the collection’s poems — ‘The emergency’ and ‘Her whereabouts’ — on the poems page of Joanna’s website.

Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and Nature connector who lives in North Dorset. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and you can read about the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in her post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature. And she contributed a video performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’ — inspired by attending a mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and featuring collages of transcript material from the court proceedings — for the Environmental Justice thread in our series on Environmental Keywords.

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.