Artist Jennifer Leach shares another story she performed as part of Festival of the Dark’s micro-festival Dazzle. It’s a tale of transformation: stretching imagination, shifting vision as key to waking us up. What if the world were other?
790 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
Last Thursday I went to visit my great 84-year old friend Anne Yarwood. For those of you who know RISC — the Reading International Solidarity Centre — she was the visionary who conceived it and brought it into being. After a cup of tea, we walked slowly out into her beautiful garden and sat in a small roofless shelter she calls The Lighthouse. We sat in amiable silence. And she then pointed to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and said, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I smiled and nodded and we sat there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity there, under the Earth.
As we sat so, I began to undergo a strange transformation. It is hard to put into words exactly what happened. A transmogrification, a molten transformation, a morphing of being and consciousness. In some manner not understood, I was within the tree, with a discombobulating sense of slightness. Glancing over, I could see that it was so too for Anne. What we had become I do not know. Witchety grubs, tree fleas, I am still unsure. And this is what then happened. In the subtlest way possible, both our surroundings and ourselves began to change. In some way, we were carried down within the heartwood of the tree, moving from the Upperland into the Netherworld beneath the soil. It was a gradual process, with the light around us dimming first into gloaming, and then into darkness; the quality of the darkness intensifying until it began to emerge as an alternative way of seeing. Our power of vision slipped incrementally from the organ of the eyes to that of the nose; we began to perceive through smell. As we descended, the darkness crystallized into the pungent scent of loam. Dim pictures formed in our nasal passages. Pictures of roots binding one with the other, spreading infinitely as a vast heaven; fungus-studded caverns hollowing with the peaty brooks that licked the leaf-moulded netherworld. Shadowy movements of fellow creatures and organisms waving, shaking, scuttling, padding. An interchange of whistling, calling, creaking, clicking; the groaning of taproots scraping anchor in the depths, the low whistle of insect calling water, the trickling flick of water calling beetle. The bark of a badger, the drumbeating rhythm of a mole at work. As we tunnelled further and further more damply downwards, the scraping against soil shaft of our own bodies crackled and cracked, breaking back and across our vibratory receptors.
Time was measured in the crawling pace of our carapaces, days by vivid vibrations, nights by a gentle hum. All we were, Anne and I, were sensations. No thought. No memory. No perception. No projection. No wondering what existed beyond our very own skins. No wondering what existed within our very own skins. No wondering what might exist beyond the rhizome roof that marked the boundary of our world. No wondering even what might be the boundary of our world. We simply were. Anne and I. Some sort of witchety grubs in a darkness dappled world of root and leafmould sensation.
How the experience ended, again neither of us can be sure. We were sitting, in amiable silence, in the small roofless shelter Anne calls the Lighthouse. And she was pointing to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and was saying, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I was smiling and nodding and we were sitting there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity, under the Earth.
Yet the sun was lower, the air cooler, with a hint of rain. We made our way slowly back towards the house. In companionable silence.
Find out more
Jennifer’s first story for ClimateCultures was What the Bee Sees. You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.
Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.
Artist Jennifer Leach shares a story about bees, honey, hexagons and robotics. What the Bee Sees is the first of two stories Jennifer performed at the Festival of the Dark’s micro-festival Dazzle. What if the world were other?
1,500 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes
This story is about bees, and honey, and hexagons. I am personally convinced that the very special nature of the hexagon is a key to the tale, and so here I shall begin. A hexagon, as I’m sure many of you will know, is a remarkable figure, with six identical sides, each one of which contributes to one of six indistinguishable equilateral triangles, each with three interchangeable angles of 60o; and with all six triangles converging on the one central point at the hexagon’s heart. If the hexagon’s neighbours are of the same dimensions, they can fit snug alongside, above, below one another, ad infinitum; a community of hexagons can be built by a child, so simple is it. Indeed a magical shape, and quite possibly it is the mystical nature of it that led to a quite extraordinary discovery about bees.
The tale begins at Reading University which, as some of you may be aware, has one of the most advanced robotics research departments in the world. Furthermore, its agricultural department has a research unit that focuses on bees. Ten years ago, these two departments came together with a shared desire to colonise a bee’s vision, to see — first hand — what a bee sees. I was lucky enough to know one of the researchers, from whom I received directly the following account.
To understand the science, it is important to appreciate the enormously complex make up of an apiarian eye. Altogether a bee has five eyes: two are a little like headlights, illuminating the bee’s path quite broadly; the remaining three filter light to create a great sensitivity of vision. Each of these eyes is made up of thousands of small hexagonal units called ommatidia. To see as a bee sees is no mean feat. As you might imagine, it was a work of engineering genius to create a small bee-sized helmet with five robotic eyes that could be clipped onto the head of a bee. It took nine years to develop, and was first ready for testing late last year. You might like to picture this helmet as akin to sunglasses, fitting over the bee’s own eyes yet not disturbing its sight. On 11th November 2017, in the research gardens of the agricultural department of Reading University, It was fitted to a bee we will call Bee A. As opposed to Bee B and Bee C who come later in the story. Remotely connected to Bee A’s cap was a commensurate cap known as the Bee Cap, which a designated researcher in the laboratory wore; the two were remotely connected. What this combination of devices allowed, in short, was for the researchers to share the vision of a bee. Or, as it turned out, to share specifically the vision of Bee A.
So, after recovering from its groggy little operation, Bee A went buzzing off on its normal busy business, as only a bee can do. After dancing around a few yellow flowers in the garden, sucking up nectar, unintentionally pollinating the neighbouring flowers at the same time, it flew off towards the hive. The researchers noted that it tends to see blues and yellows, and can also see the ultra-violet light that our human eyes cannot pick up. So far so good, confirming already known facts about the bee and its eyesight.
Next, Bee A flew into one of the hexagonal cells within the hive and this was exciting. Researchers had never previously had the privilege of viewing the inside of a hive cell through a bee’s own eyes. The light inside these cells is glowing and golden, rich and mellow as honey. The little bee fits pretty snugly inside, deposits its nectar, and works for a while producing enzymes to begin the honeyfication process. The expectation was, obviously, that it would then exit the cell the same way it came in and repeat the entire process. What happened next, however, was revelatory. And here I must ask you please for total confidentiality; this research is revolutionary, as yet unpublished, and must go no further than this website.
Instead of flying out the way it had come in, Bee A flew out the back of the cell. Unexpected perhaps, but here was the seismic shock: as it exited, the robotics researcher experienced a mind-bending, body-altering episode that has left him hospitalised. Electronically connected as he was through his Bee Cap to Bee A’s robotic eyes, he suffered a fragmentation of vision, a severe jarring of his eyeballs; he reported that every atom in his body seemed to condense into his heart area, and for around one second he was as dense and leaden as a lodestar. As he described it, ‘I felt as if the entire Universe had imploded momentarily within my own body.’
Incredible and absurd as it seems, scientists believe that Bee A had entered a pin-sized Black Hole, and even more incredibly and absurdly, passed through it unscathed. Whilst medical staff attended the unfortunate researcher, his colleague grabbed the Bee Cap, reestablishing connection with Bee A.
What she saw almost blew her mind. She was out in dark space aglow with a violet light that can only be described as celestial. Stars did not stud the heavens, they peppered it, millions upon millions of violet swirling stars moving in a diaphanous mist. There are no words for it. Literally no words. It is not a sight that belongs to our universe. And Bee A’s behaviour in this universe was not as on Earth. Its body stretched and elongated so that it became serpentine, streaming along on wings that needed to do no work. It floated, as if on an ocean, carried on an invisible tide that drew it along with directed energy. As it travelled, it appeared to be gathering nectar in its regular fashion. And the researcher noticed that its vision too had altered. Each ommatidium began to spin clockwise, so that the bee’s sight became a kaleidoscope of purple spinning hexagons. After a few seconds, she pulled the Bee Cap from her head, was violently sick, and passed out. By the time she came to a few minutes later, Bee A was back in its cell, and had deposited its otherworldly gathering of nectar.
On completing this task, the bee then fell into what seemed to be a trance. It lay so for several minutes. The robotic cap indicated that the bee was experiencing REM sleep, just as a human would. And then – extraordinarily – whilst still in this state of sleep, it flew out of the front of the cell, and went about its usual busy business in what we shall call, for shorthand’s sake, ‘our world’. As if in a dream.
It goes without saying that the immediate desire by the researchers was to follow up the experiment by trying out the same procedure on what we shall call Bee B. And later Bees C, D, E and so on. Over a period of three weeks they did this, collating the mindblowing evidence that suggests each bee, when it exits the back of its own cell, passes through the same nodal shift as did Bee A but each appears to go into ITS OWN UNIVERSE. (The researchers have learnt, it hardly needs stating, to remove the Bee Cap for the duration of this shift point). No two universes have so far looked alike. Each has its own distinct colour, form of motion, velocity, some are complex, others simple, some light, others more muted. Within its universe, the scale of the bee varies from diminutive to overly significant, and each bee moves about in its own fashion. Some ‘swim’, others roll, one vast bee stood upon its back two legs and walked. Each is, in its own way, utterly wonderful.
In all universes, all bees have one commonality, that of gathering nectar which, after returning back through the nodal shift point to the golden glow of the hive cell, they deliver to the collective. And here is what is, perhaps, most unexpected of all. The researchers at the university have of course closely analysed the bees’ honey, and the evidence is indisputable – no matter which universe the individual bee has collected its nectar from, and no matter by what method, the honey produced back in the hive is exactly the same.
Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.
Writer Justina Hart concludes her account of writing Doggerland Rising, researching the prehistory of the mesolithic peoples of these lowland plains before sea level rise created the North Sea, and reveals what she has learned from the process.
Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.
Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.
I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:
The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:
Wade in with palaeogeographers,archaeologists, palaeogeologists,cartographers who swiminto the past for a living, who disturb and reconfigure depths.
Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished section I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:
A man hallooing as if to himselfpaddles through shallow waters. He looks ahead, squinting;he can almost see you, you him.
Letting go of research and sinking into the sea
Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it — taking whatever I’d absorbed with me — and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.
Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was — as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority — the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.
I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:
And Atlantis can once again Rise from the ocean And the musical, beautiful sound will resound And shake in every tree …
I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).
I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.
Here is a note from my journal:
5 November 2016 — research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around theears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].
After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:
The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also tothemselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk tothemselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us throughthis film too, and not.
The first character emerges — let’s call him Shaman
One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.
This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.
This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section two:
‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clueabout me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’
Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.
So I navigated my imaginative North Sea — and the poem — by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.
After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.
Sharing the poem — feedback and editing
Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement — a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.
Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:
Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouthinto blue – blue is my element and green –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:
Here I come: pushed from the river’s veinsinto blue – blue is my dwelling place –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:
Yet once we were kings who strolled throughparadise to Germany, Holland, France.
Few readers might have noticed — and the rhythm worked well — but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.
‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘theuplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’
Here’s the final refrain:
Yet once we were kings who strolled through plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.
I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact-checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem:
‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendaryears ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.’
Personal insights — leaving the Mesolithic
The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.
Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.
Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.
The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.
By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.
Find out more
You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.
Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.
Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking...
"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?"
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ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, which explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of society’s dulling of the feeling of true passion, our relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature.
2,820 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
A copy of Equus goes to Ruth Garde for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
“One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The world keeps sending psychiatrist Martin Dysart customers: the children he’s come to see as being damaged by that world, it judges them as damaging to it. “One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”
Introducing Equus, Peter Shaffer mentions the risks in reproducing a written text. Not simply that the play obviously consists of so much more than the words: the gestures, the lighting and the ‘look of the thing’; but that the printed book “can imprison a play in one particular stylisation … Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.” Dysart seems to feel the same way about his own work: rendering the living spirit back into inoffensive flesh and bones.
A play that says more than once that “extremity is the point” begins with crisis. Magistrate Hester Salomon pleads with Dysart to take personal charge of a 17 year old boy who has committed a crime her colleagues want to punish him severely for.
DYSART: Why? What’s he done? Dosed some little girl’s Pepsi with Spanish Fly? What could possible throw your bench into two-hour convulsions?
HESTHER: He blinded six horses with a metal spike.
[A long pause.]
Shaffer said that he’d been driving past a stables one day when a friend told him about just a crime, which he’d heard about at a dinner party. “He knew only one detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute – but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.” That real crime became the trigger for a play portraying a world which has so destroyed people’s ability to feel passion that it leads to incomprehensible acts.
Alan’s distraught mother, Dora, resists any implication that the blinding was somehow the result of the boy’s upbringing, of society.
DORA: We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. My husband is a good man … He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy … No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself … If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all our things added up.
Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables where Alan worked at weekends, insists the boy was a model employee – right up to the sudden, vicious attacks. “No, he was bloody good. He’d spend hours with the horses cleaning and grooming them, way over the call of duty. I thought he was a real find.” This in spite of Alan’s one oddity; apparently, he never rode the horses, although that perk was the reason most stablehands took the job. Asked why Alan should be so different, Dalton replies: “Are you asking me? He’s a loony, isn’t he?”
The indispensable, murderous God
Hester wants Dysart to bring back the ‘normal’ boy within the tormented teenager. But the psychiatrist finds himself resisting more and more the call of the tame.
DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God.”
Dysart — middle-aged, working at a relentless conveyor belt rolling cases in through one door and out through another — is, of course, in the midst of his own existential crisis. Hester, horrified by his despairing self-awareness, tries constantly to coax him back into seeing the real benefits he delivers, every day, to the children he cares for. We begin to wonder who she thinks will be the saving of whom: Dysart of Alan Strang, troubled and troubling youth; or Alan of Martin Dysart, world-weary psychiatrist careering down into his own annihilation?
Dysart, however, is having none of it. He’s haunted by a dream that Alan’s arrival has triggered, and for which his own fascination with the ‘civilisation’ of Ancient Greece provides the setting.
DYSART: That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos … It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is … I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse … And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip.
Alan, meanwhile, is running rings round him, deflecting all attempts to uncover the dark reason for blinding the horses he’d cared for. The psychiatrist interviews Alan’s parents, picking apart their differences – class, temperament, religion. He wait, impassive at first as Alan bombards him with constant singing of adverts he’s learned from the forbidden TV, then angrily as the boy makes deep incisions of his own, with barbed comments about the doctor’s childless and sterile home-life.
Religion would seem to be at centre and bottom of Equus: Dysart’s fascination with the primitive rites of ancient Greece, his revulsion at the Normal deity of modern living; Dora Strang’s Christian faith and tutoring of her son against the wishes of her equally devout atheist husband. Gods exert their powerful pull as mortals continually recreate them.
But it’s passion that’s the real heart — buried and beating in in Alan, exposed and dying in Dysart. ‘Passion’ is ‘suffering’ — the Passion of Christ — but, derived originally from the Latin pati ‘to endure, undergo, experience’, later came also to mean ‘strong emotion, desire.’ Experience, suffering, desire — and all the animist, conventional and secular religious forms that evoke, console, contain, inhibit and incite these in their different ways. Alan has imbibed and rejected something of his mother’s religious faith and his father’s ‘rigorously self-improving’ one. And society’s consumerist religion is proselytised through the TV he’s supposedly banned from watching and reinforced by the customers at the electrical shop where he works during the week; selling brand names to satisfy the already well-equipped citizens of techno(theo)logical society.
Alan’s father preaches on TV’s corrosive effects:
FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life – like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. … Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don’t want, just to bolster up the economic system.
From all this, and from vivid if dreamlike childhood memories, Alan has created his own vital, ritualistic worship of his secret God, Equus: kneeling to the picture of a horse framed above his bed; slowly brushing the horses in the stables; secretly taking night-time rides on them. Riding is a worship to be offered raw and alone under the darkness of night, in unwatched fields of mists and nettles: human and animal both naked. Never in the genteel daytime rituals of ‘indulging in equitation’: animal harnessed, humiliated, un-natured; human civilised, ‘mastering’ nature.
At last, exhausted, he reveals his secret, miming for the psychiatrist how two beasts become one and ride out “against them all … My foes and His … The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe! … The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!”
DYSART: Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that… I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity … Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats … such a fantastic surrender to the primitive. And I use the word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ … I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!
Extremity’s the point
Although Alan has abstracted his passion into a mystical vision of Horse-become-God as enthralling as the God-become-Man and Man-become-God visions of Christian and Industrial religions, what Dysart sees at its core is a primal relationship between human and more-than-human. Far-removed from “the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!” He dissects the inhuman condition we’ve inherited, become (de)naturalised into, and recreate with every Normal thought and action and speech. Dysart knows he cannot keep Alan free from it. It’s what Dysart also wishes to free himself from — and feels insanely jealous of the boy for succeeding, if only temporarily and at a terrible cost to human and animal. More terrible, though, than the ‘proper’ relationship of humans and animals?
DYSART: I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them — blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field … and give him Normal places for his ecstasy — multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he’ll never touch hide again!
Alan has confronted the world of fake reality and discovered his own sexual being at exactly the same time he realises the sexless world on offer in the desolating Normal of his parents’ lives, Dysart’s life and the lives of everyone he sees around him when the young woman he works with at the stables takes him on his first date, to “a skin flick over in Winchester! I’ve never seen one, have you? … All those heavy Swedes, panting at each other! What do you say?”
ALAN: The whole place was full of men. Jill was the only girl … All round me they were all looking. All the men — staring like they were in church. Like they were all a congregation.
Equus is a jealous God. Alan and Jill are discovered in the cinema by his father — revealed as a hypocritical consumer of what he’s brought his son up to beware. When Jill leads him away from the horrifying confrontation and takes him, inevitably, to the place they both know and can be alone together, she’s unaware that the stables are not just her secret place for sex but also his Holy of Holies. Naked with her, Alan sees his God watching through the eyes of the six horses. Equus sees all and punishes transgression, leaving Alan humiliated and, unable to act on his desire for Jill. Forcing her away, when Alan’s alone again with Equus, in despair he takes revenge on His all-seeing God’s earthly forms.
Shaffer’s intense fascination on hearing the brief, almost completely decontextualised account of the real-life horse-blinding was with a crime that “lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.” Meaning that we must all look for our own, incoherent, ones. But remember the one small detail that Shaffer did have: a crime his friend “had heard about recently at a dinner party in London.” More than likely a very ‘Normal’ dinner party, at which conversation, with the odd bit of spine-chilling news and thrilling gossip, took place over plates of animal flesh of one kind or another — although certainly not horse.
A thousand local gods
Returned to the Normal world — where “animals are treated properly” in that way rather than blinded with their own hoof picks — once Dysart has delivered on his promise to “heal the rash on his body … erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes,” Alan “may even come to find sex funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! … Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
But, he tells the sleeping boy, “He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old nag … When Equus leaves — if he leaves at all — it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements.”
Dysart has confessed to Alan his own secret desire: to escape his work, his home.
ALAN: Where would you go?
DYSART: Yes. There’s a sea – a great sea – I love … It’s where the Gods used to bathe.
ALAN: What Gods?
DYSART: The old ones. Before they died.
ALAN: Gods don’t die.
DYSART: Yes, they do.
And earlier, when he told Hesther of his true passion for the world, his own form of worship, Dysart was offering it to us too. Knowing he’d never find it himself but warning us: try — find every way through, out of the Normal and into something more real.
DYSART: I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could … stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones like Zeus — no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs — just as of certain frowns and slouches … I’d say to them — ‘Worship as many as you can see — and more will appear!’
It’s a passion not for the abstract but the particular vision — of place, of person and of the more-than-human world: a renewed and habitual relationship with habitat.
DYSART: And of all the nonsensical things — I keep thinking of the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? Not to be a horse any longer? Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together — the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life – and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? … I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands — waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says [Mocking] ”Why? … Why Me? Why — ultimately — Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!”
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I first discovered Equus through Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation, with Richard Burton as Martin Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan Strang. The screenplay was adapted by Peter Shaffer himself.
Questioning extremity? Space for creative thinking...
"Extremity is the point," suggests Martin Dysart - in the world of Normal, where passion is flattened out, made safe, and industrialsed violence against animals (human and non-human) is hidden from sight. Freed from a need for any 'final, coherent explanation', what extremity might your creative practice bring to light?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Writer Nick Hunt walked the invisible pathways of Europe’s named winds for Where the Wild Winds Are. His final extract tracks France’s Mistral (‘masterly’, from the Latin magistralis), the ‘idiot wind’ that inspired and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.
810 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
‘There is a town north-west of here called Aubenas, deeper in Ardèche. The old people say that until fifteen years ago, they had never known Mistral. Now it blows there frequently, very strong, only in the last two decades. No one knows why.’
This was not the first time I’d heard of winds changing their patterns – in Croatia people had argued incessantly over whether the Bora was stronger or weaker than before – but it was a topic I had mostly steered clear of. The dizzying complexity of meteorological science had been impressed on me early on, and statements like ‘the winds are changing’ are impossible to back up without meticulous data and computer modelling. Anecdotal evidence is equally dodgy territory, because people’s memories of what the wind was like fifty years ago, or twenty, or two, relies on their subjective state, which can change as dramatically as the winds they are trying to remember. As every poet knows, the boundary between weather and mood is infinitely porous.
However, it seems clear enough that if Europe’s climate is changing, the time-worn pathways of its winds eventually will too. If the climate changes the temperature changes, which means the atmospheric pressure changes; if the atmospheric pressure changes air will be forced along different routes, adapting to environmental shifts as species do. In fifty or a hundred years perhaps the Mistral will have migrated to the east or west, rendering those blank north-facing walls obsolete technology. Perhaps the Helm will be displaced from its redoubt on Cross Fell – the demons finally exorcised for good – and the Bora, Foehn, Tramontana and Bise channelled into different territories, like climate refugees.
Viviers, it turned out, was a fitting place for such thoughts: a local legend warns of the perils of the winds changing their patterns. According to this origin myth the Mistral rises not far from here, in an area of marsh, pouring through the open mouth of an enormous cave. After years of suffering, the people living in its path devised a method of stifling it; they constructed a great wooden door, reinforced with iron bands, and nailed it swiftly into place to take the wind by surprise. The Masterly howled its discontent, cursing and threatening, but was trapped inside the rock with no hope of escape.
That winter was the mildest the Rhône Valley had ever known, untroubled by frost or snow, and the people were glad of what they’d done. When summer came, however, everything started to go wrong. The air was humid and unhealthy, causing sickness and disease. With no wind to dry the fields the grass grew lank, the ground became boggy and the crops developed mould; the countryside sweltered, and was plagued by insects. Unable to bear these conditions any longer the people decided to free the wind, nominating the nearest village to prise open the door. Before they did so, the locals made the Mistral promise to behave more gently, to stop flattening their crops and tearing down their barns. The Mistral kept its word, but – like any deal with the devil –- acted to the letter rather than the spirit of the pact, sparing the immediate environs but not the countryside beyond; once released it howled to the south, frustrated from its captivity, and raged with a violence even greater than before. The moral of this environmental fable is very clear: don’t mess with forces you don’t understand. The cold north wind, for all its discomfort, brings blessings to the land.
Questioning boundaries? Space for creative thinking..."Nick ends his series of excerpts with thoughts about changes in Europe's winds - and the 'infinitely porous' boundary between weather and mood. How might we construct maps of a future Europe illustrated not by our natural or political boundaries changing with its climate but by the altered moods of its peoples and places'?" Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!