Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares reflections on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as reaching towards the more-than-human.
1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing.
I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere1. It is surely a place of hard takings.
So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.
On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead2.
The permeability of the frog
But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.
A frog’s skin is composed of a thin, membranous tissue that can bring oxygen directly into its blood vessels. The porous membrane can also act as a sponge, soaking up scarce water from pond bottom or even dew. Such a fine line, then, between the outside and the inside of the frog. What seems like a hard and defined distinction, inside/outside, is suddenly in jeopardy, even in flux, what with those gases diffusing in and spreading out. Nothing to stop them. That is the strand I want to follow.
Permeability is a brilliant adaption that is key to frog survival. But when you factor in homo extractus, well, it’s a whole other ballgame.
For their magic skin to work, it needs to stay wet. Right there, a red flag. Hotter summers, drought — climate change won’t be too kind to frogs. But it gets worse. A warming climate not only stresses creatures but seems to increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants.
In my region, agriculture and forestry now dominate the landscape. Both are promiscuous with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that are delivered mostly through aerial spraying during the late summer. The toxicity of glyphosate is made worse by the surfactant (POEA) that is added to the mix to make the herbicide stick to, and penetrate, the plants more effectively. I guess it is not surprising that something called polyoxyethylene tallow amine does damage to frogs — it increases the permeability of their skin3, letting in more poison.
I think of frog: that wet membrane, the coolness of the shade, tucked in under a leafy overhang. Then what? The scorching of the defoliant, home laid bare, skin burning?
We have little idea as to how a frog might process the experience of being sprayed with herbicide, but we have some idea of what it does: mouth deformities, eye abnormalities, impairment of their breathing ability and predator avoidance response, decrease and damage to the tail length of tadpoles, affecting their burst swim speed. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts.
Breaking down the boundaries
You know, it is odd, but sometimes when scientists conduct their studies on the impact of herbicides on frogs, they spray them with it, observe the impacts, measure, and record. I have no useful way of thinking about this except to say that it disturbs me. And that I think even when we are trying to be better, more careful, we still don’t quite get to the right place: that it isn’t frogs, habitats, populations. It is this particular frog, it is a home, a community. But between the science and the empathy lie hard and often unyielding binaries and boundaries: human/non-human, civilization/wild, emotional/rational. Until we break these down it is unlikely that we will know frog well enough to see what justice for frogs could even look like and what form of reparations would get us there.
Perhaps we need to turn to the frog and permeability for insight. To consider permeability as a means of soaking in otherness – as an aspect of imagination, a pathway to perhaps dissolving, or at least thinning, the binary that currently rules our thinking about animal/human realities.
The writer Jean MacNeil, discussing a writer’s ability to enter into animal consciousness, describes listening to lions in the night, writing that their calls to one another “… took up a splintered space inside me like the other slashes of perception that ripped through there – sunset, sunrise, the wind, the chocolate earth, the olive green of the desert after rain.” This is the outside moving inside, the permeability of the artist’s imagination, as McNeil felt herself “…ebbing away from the world of the human…” so she could pay attention to what she could “… absorb of an animal’s state of mind, the energy they cast around them …”4
So yes, the ebbing away, the moving from actor to receptor. Opening oneself up to another’s suffering is often a natural path towards acts of solidarity. Such acts could include things like habitat restoration and preservation, committing to less lethal lifestyles (limiting both waste and extraction, developing creature-friendly practices) and achieving a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth.
But what happens as the ‘ebbing away’ continues, if the boundaries keep weakening, thinning? When we move from managing for to living with, when Green Frog goes from a vulnerable amphibian to simply my neighbour? What will that relationship look like?
That is as much a question for art as for science, this shift to a relational way of being. This way of being is a dream, a vision that needs to be created from old wisdom and new insights. Quiet and still on the bottom of our imaginariums, seemingly inert, we can consider the weight of damage done, let the burden of it all crack open those silos of thinking, and then we too become permeable, able to absorb and be absorbed by the thrum and the tangle, within and without. Then perhaps we could be living the dream with our fellow traveller, Green Frog.
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Brit offered the following notes with her post:
My home sits on the traditional territory of the Timiskaming First Nation. An Algonquin community, the Saugeen Anishabeg have never signed a treaty with the Crown – their traditional territory remains unceded. The need for reparations and a just resolution to this hard taking (and for all Indigenous communities dispossessed of the land) is inseparable from the creation of a liveable, alternative future for any and all of us.
A local mining company doing remediation work in the area came by and took the frog corpses and some water samples for testing. Cause of death? Unknown, probably roadwork; also, the gelatinous coating on the frog was a water mold.
Brit offered her piece in response to the first in our series of Environmental Keywords posts, Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, which offers reflections on that keyword from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. A short extract of Brit’s piece has also been included in a new page in our Environmental Keywords section, along with further creative explorations of ‘environmental justice’. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.
2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes
It was during an online Creative Environments workshop from the University of Bristol last September, led by Dr Paul Merchant, that I first came across his work with the Centre for Environmental Humanities there, and he mentioned the idea of looking at keywords associated with the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. Later, he brought together a group of interested people inside and beyond the university for an informal exploration and we offered to support the idea of a project. We quickly settled on a short investigation into three words that have complex meanings and usages in different disciplines and contexts and where there is an ever-present risk of groups talking past each other as we grapple with the urgencies and nuances of our climate and biodiversity predicaments.
Paul and facilitator Anna Haydock-Wilson devised a series of workshops and, while I can’t be at the workshops myself, we agreed I should follow up each one with short discussions — by email or Zoom — with the researchers, community group members and creative practitioners who take part. My aim is to explore their insights from the events and their experiences of the different keywords.
As such, this post is not an account or evaluation of the ‘Justice’ workshop or an ‘objective’ overview of that word and its meanings — even less, an attempt at a definition. I hope it’s a fair reflection of some of the things participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop. And that it offers one way in to further conversations on justice, how we talk about it, and its role in helping us navigate our climate and environmental futures. I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.
This group’s exploration of the word ‘Justice’ began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in the Easton area of Bristol. Participants — as local residents, community project workers and activists, writers and artists and researchers — met, shared ideas of justice and made personal notes as they walked, about what this means for them in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the local community centre to share their perspectives on the walk and their own work or involvement with the issues, and split into two groups for a role-playing game. In that session, each group made a ‘justice map’ of the local area to help bring their ideas into focus, before a final discussion together at the end.
One of the community participants said of the session as a whole: “It was a great group of people, and I found it really interesting to have representatives from both academic and non-academic backgrounds in the same room and to hear about the different types of work people are doing linked to climate. I would love to find more ways to translate some of the research and work being done into projects we’re doing locally at a very grassroots level. I’m really glad these workshops have begun, and I think there’s a lot of work for us to be doing to make sure the spaces where words like justice are discussed are shaped by people who have traditionally been on the receiving end of injustice.”
Another said: “I really loved that there were people from very different backgrounds there — both cultural and from the work they did and the experiences they had, on all those fronts.”
A third person told me how: “It has motivated me and confirmed a value for what I do. It was good to have different perspectives in a room coming from different backgrounds or professions. I also really enjoyed the game Anna devised with the role-playing — thought that worked well.”
One member of the group shared a couple of strong and, it seems to me, complementary memories from the introductory walk — of “the river Frome overflooding under a motorway bridge” and of “how easily conversation flowed with everybody.” Another explained how “I see the environment as a key factor to enable or disable people being exposed to it. On our walk, we had lots of opportunities to explore this and how this might contribute to environmental justice.” Someone else told me how in “an interesting conversation I remember … I noticed that much of her thoughts surrounded the ‘why’, which I felt was powerful.”
As a prelude to shared conversation within the usual ‘workshop’ environment of a closed room — such as the community centre offered later on — a walk allows for a more open-ended mix of private thought, personal encounter with the local environs and chance conversations with different people one-to-one. In a way, it’s a little like an extended version of that experience when we first arrive at a venue for an event: the bumping into new people at the initial pre-conference tea or coffee, but with the added fuel of fresh air, new perspectives gained out-of-doors and the ever-changing location brought by physical movement. After all, we don’t normally expect to be walking around for a meeting.
The fact that the walk preceded the formal part of the workshop — was actually integral to its design — was clearly appreciated. For one participant, this spoke to a core aspect of our own nature. “Through being active and interacting with the world, particularly walking around, we have a chance to develop new neurons. And our brain, as with other parts of our body, is changing depending on the environment and our interactions. … The physical and the mental go hand in hand and the environment is crucial as it provides the stimulation you need, both on the physical and the mental side.” In this sense, our personal environment — and therefore our shared environment, as social animals — is embodied within us; the boundary between ourselves and the ‘external’ world, where our body stops and the world begins, is not fixed in the ways we commonly think.
“In fact, where our body starts is an interaction between our brain, our environment and our body and the way our senses work to define what is actually around us. We do this all the time. We have to combine what we see, what we hear, what we feel to be able to know what ‘belongs’ to an object, to us, to someone else.”
Here, then, justice starts to have a very direct relationship with personal experience and with being in and moving around a place. But — like an urban river — that relationship can be submerged, can sink out of our conscious mind until a new context brings it to our attention. As one person fed back to me: “The walk made me notice things which I sometimes take for granted, or you just accept them as they are. Like poor, not thought out architecture in this instance. The grotesque wheelchair access at the train station; the motorway. So if an area has been poorly designed, what are our rights to change anything? Things feel so set in stone sometimes, we don’t know we actually have a voice to change things.” Another pointed out how “We have this idea when we talk about disability or inclusiveness, this tendency to restrict it to someone in a wheelchair or who is blind. But that’s more or less it. Anybody else, with all the sensory variability that is out there and all the consequences that has, is not at all considered.”
Our urban and others spaces can design in forms of injustice, as illustrated above: embedded in the ways we become accustomed to think about what should even be part of that design process. While this can be addressed through greater care in new design codes, attention will always be needed to what lies outside the efforts to improve these. You cannot code everything. Standards cannot capture all the ways that our dynamic natural environment and we as diverse humans interact. Like a river, the human and the more-than-human break out and exceed the boundaries and order we try to impose.
A testing ground for conversations
While in some places, some people and communities do find voice and agency — their own ways to make change happen — in too many places many cannot: “I considered the active involvement in a neighbourhood — guerilla gardening in a small patch close to the Bristol-Bath trainline — vs no involvement in the garden/play space square in a concreted-over sad excuse for a playground in a social housing complex.” This participant had spoken with another “about the will or capacity of people to do such things to a space outside their own house boundaries” — capacities that can be bound up with different, perhaps overlapping identities.
“We spoke about cultural differences, about new residents from other countries not wanting to stand out, or draw attention to themselves. I have noticed behaviours before with poor recycling rates, with the problem being the visible bins — where residents did not want their neighbours to see what they consume. There is a social status which needs to be upheld. This is the same for people participating in the flea market as traders of second-hand goods. New residents i.e. first-generation arrivals from other countries, need to prove themselves to others from their own cultures that they are being successful.”
Someone else shared how in the group session another member of the group had “mentioned the word justice terrifies some people. It never occurred to me to think that, but made me make the connexion with my fear of the police. I will be very careful to define what it means to me when engaging in conversation with others. From now on I will make sure that when I talk, ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A point echoed by another person, who said to me: “It was really useful to connect the word and concept of justice as a focus to the environment. It anchored the importance of the issues for me.”
Another comment gets to the heart of the matter, sharing how in their work with local communities: “a common theme that has come up when speaking with people is how disempowering the language used around climate can be and the negative impact it can have on people feeling that they don’t belong in ‘green’ spaces. Based on that feedback, I’d been thinking about ways we could start working together within our community to build more shared understanding of what the words often used in climate action and decision-making mean, so that more people can use them and the power they hold. When Paul got in touch about the workshop on justice, I was keen to get involved, seeing it as something of a testing ground of how we might begin having these conversations.”
I was sent a link to locally-led research demonstrating how resilient blue spaces are connected to higher quality of life, from which this participant concluded: “so the quality of more greenery around rivers, which we consider good for our wellbeing, would be rather seen in spaces with less deprivation. The justice of the river itself — so majestic round Snuff Mills [a park in the Stapleton area of north Bristol], and in flood it is a powerful beast — to then be turned into a drainpipe and hidden away under concrete for the last bits of its journey into the city. … You feel differently as you follow the river, depending on where it is.”
This also starts to point me to a wider or expanded sense of justice. If environment, body and mind are in relationship within and around each of us and ‘social justice’ contains something of that relationship then — just as where our body ends and the world starts is less fixed than we suppose — justice must encompass something of the wider natural world as well as ‘society’. Something in that phrase, ‘The justice of the river itself’ — a river that has its own life in itself, a powerful beast, and yet is forced into concrete, underground, away from us — speaks to injustice on a more-than-human scale.
A noun, a verb? In a word, Justice
When asked how they felt about the word ‘Justice’ now, whether this was different since the workshop, one participant said “It feels a lot closer to the bone,” while I’ve already quoted another: “From now on I will make sure that when I talk ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A third person shared that “I would say that justice used in this climate conversation felt very complex. Already all intertwined, decision-making done with consideration to every living being and their livelihoods is ‘Justice’.”
A further response suggests that a process such as this walk-and-workshop itself is an enactment of what we are seeking: “That’s for me ‘justice’: the listening, the learning and the working together.” And what flows from that might be something that retains a diversity, that “we would start to think of whether we can develop what we call almost a shared mental model … where we know which angle we are coming from but we have an understanding of where they might all fit together. And then instead of having a fixed outcome, rather think of it as a theory of change; how can we change these things and move together to something that is more just, more resilient?”
To appreciate the ‘angle we are coming from’ and how others’ paths intersect, converge, overlap our own, is an expansion of our own map, our mental model, into something larger and shared, although always incomplete. Two conversations gave me different impressions of an area I’ve never visited but can imagine from my encounters with other places I’ve lived or worked. Different but, importantly, not necessarily conflicting — and both speaking of injustice.
One was an email where a few lines provided almost a prose poem: “the trainline with lots of freight trains, high pollution in a local neighbourhood; the architecture at the train station; graffiti and street art; River Frome, DIY skatepark; the lack of green in neighbourhoods, pocket parks; then finally the council estate with a concreted over play park. Had a few trees, but I was surprised and shocked actually at such a loss of opportunity.”
The other came during a Zoom call, reflecting on the same scene as “On one hand a very sad space but on the other almost an amazing space, when you think about the way the youth make it their own. The dumped sofas, the building rubbish and rubble and whatever, integrated as obstacles into the skatepark; the graffiti going over them as if they are becoming part of the landscape; the ceiling of the M32 with an enormous graffiti, it’s the skeleton of an animal, which brings in almost the life and the change of all these things. The River Frome then going over its edges, going onto the car park, where it can come out and starts to become a river again. So all that is to see how nevertheless life takes over. The walk to the train station there, the little path where the flowers break out to try to get their own space. That’s actually really nice. And I think that by gentrifying that area that community would lose a lot. That’s where justice comes in again: how do you approach such things without destroying what the community creates to survive? That was one of the things where I hadn’t appreciated just how much they’re making that space liveable for them and useable.”
I also saw something of this possibly creative tension between different ways of living in, of seeing, the same ‘environment’ in what another person shared as one of their strongest memories of the event: “the feeling that some areas, particularly those with lots of graffiti, gave a harsh feeling to the area. As graffiti is a huge part of Bristol’s character it’s not a question about removing it but more about offsetting it in the areas it’s the most prominent by revitalising playgrounds and greenspaces.”
Maybe a vision of justice might be something fluid, able to move with people and environment and the others we share it with. And part of that flow might be to recognise not just that justice must include the many and the diversity that we are and share, but the seemingly conflicting forms and appreciations of what is ‘good’.
What does the word ‘Justice’ mean to you?
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See below for comments on this post – and contribute your own to be part of the conversation!
Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.
With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.
The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:
‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022
You can find out more at our new Environmental Keywords section, including the suggestion to explore an ‘undisciplined glossary of our three keywords: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page.
Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.
2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes
For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.
Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.
For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.
Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.
Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.
Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ — a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires — which he took to Glasgow for COP26.
We asked each artist/organiser four questions.
What did you do at COP26?
“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.
“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”
“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.
“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”
“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”
How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?
“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”
“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.
“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.
“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”
What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?
“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”
“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”
“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”
Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?
“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”
“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.
“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”
“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”
Find out more
Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:
Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.
Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible. Read More
Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.
3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes
When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.
It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.
Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:
“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”
Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.
Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.
So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.
In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”
For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.
One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.
So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.
Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.
One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.
The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”
At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.
Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.
Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.
Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”
In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.
In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:
“Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.”
If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.
As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:
“My experience of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.”
I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.
Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies
When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.
As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?
Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.
On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.
Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.
They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”
Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?
“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.” — Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.
After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.
As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.
In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.
Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place
I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.
As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.
As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:
“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.” — Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.
“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“ — David Bohm, On Dialogue.
Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.
Find out more
The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.
In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home.
2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes
Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”
Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.
“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”
We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.
For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.
The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.
A gentle force
Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’
He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”
In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.
Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.
Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”
Small pieces of hope
“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”
This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.
The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.
Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.”
In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.”
This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”
Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.
“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”
The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.
Rebellion for the natural world
A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”
And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”
“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.”
As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:
“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”
It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”
Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”
Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes.
You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.
The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:
Relationships of ownership They whisper in the wings To those condemned to act accordingly And wait for succeeding kings And I try to harmonize with songs The lonesome sparrow sings There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.