A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

Anthropologist Lisa J. Lucero shares a talk she recorded specially for ClimateCultures, drawing on her extensive archaeological research into how ancient Maya culture adapted to environmental change, and whose non-anthropocentric cosmology can help us rethink our own worldview.


1,190 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes + 42 minutes video


I have spent over 30 years studying the ancient Maya, and I have learned so much from the Maya, past and present. The book I am working on — Sacred Maya Forests, Ancient Environmentalism, and Our Future — shares what I have learned about the Maya world and the insights we can draw from that are relevant today.

Both the archaeological record and Maya foremen and field assistants (the guys), some of whom have worked with me for over 20 years, have taught me much about their way of life. I have seen their children grow, get married, and have children of their own. Even though I have been working in central Belize for decades, I still would never go into the jungle without the guys — Mother Nature only laughs at high tech toys. Nothing is better than their knowledge and experience. They not only help me teach students archaeology, but they also provide lots of the gear we need. They make ladders from trees for taking photos and for getting in and out of deep excavation pits. They also make unit stakes, screen racks and tables using branches and vines. To protect us and excavations from sun and rain, the guys use corozo leaf and logs to make palapas — open-sided dwellings with a thatched roof. Cleofo, a Mopan Maya and one of my foremen, uses bamboo to make tools to excavate human remains since they don’t scratch bones like metal tools do.

I only hope I get to go to Belize in May 2021 for a six-week field season. I have a three-year National Science Foundation Grant to fund a rescue archaeology project in recently cleared areas that have exposed hundreds of ancient Maya mounds/structures. There is so much more to learn.

A cosmology for sustainability

Together, the archaeological record and my Maya foremen and assistants provide the means to address major questions, the key ones being: how have the Maya been able to farm for 4,000 years without denuding the tropical landscape? What insights can we draw from the Maya that are relevant today? I begin addressing these questions in my presentation here, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’, which you can watch below.

The Classic Maya (c. 250-900 CE) are famous for their jungle cities with temples, palaces, tombs, ballcourts, exquisitely carved monuments, inscribed jades, and painted ceramics. Maya farmers, who supported this urban system, lived before, during, and after the emergence and demise of Maya kings between c. 200 BCE and 900 CE because of how they lived, which itself was informed by their non-anthropocentric worldview. This worldview, a cosmology of conservation, resulted in sustainable practices and was expressed in their daily life — rituals, farming, hunting, forest management, socializing, etc. As a case study, I highlight the pilgrimage destination of Cara Blanca, Belize.

Ego vs ecocentrism in Maya cosmology
Ego vs. Eco: the former resulted in the Anthropocene, the latter in sustainable practices. Generated by J. Gonzalez Cruz and L. J. Lucero, 2020

The traditional Maya worldview espouses that humans were one of many parts (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world they shared. Everything in Classic Maya society was animated and connected via souls. The Maya worked with nature, not against it. Nor did they attempt to control it. Such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation, allowing the Maya to feed more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently.

Adapting to a changing world

The Classic Maya lived in hundreds of cities, each with their own king, surrounded by rural farmsteads. This low-density agrarian urban system integrated water and agricultural systems, cities, farmsteads and communities, exchange networks, and resources. Rural farmers depended on city reservoirs during the annual five-month dry season — the agricultural downtime. Cities exerted a centripetal pull on rural Maya through markets, public ceremonies, and other large-scale public events — and the massive reservoirs. In turn, cities depended on the rural populace to fund the political economy in the form of labor, services (craft specialists, hunters, etc.), agricultural produce (e.g. maize, beans, manioc, squash, pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, etc.), and forest resources (wood, fuel, construction materials, medicinal plants, chert, game, fruit, etc.).

Showing an abandoned Mayan city, Tikal
Tikal – abandoned Mayan city
Photo: A. Kinkella

The Maya relied on rainfall to nourish their fields and replenish reservoirs during the annual rainy season between about mid-June to mid-January. The relatively little surface water due to the porous limestone bedrock, topography (e.g. entrenched rivers), and dispersed resources discouraged large-scale irrigation systems. The Maya began building reservoirs in cities c. 100 BCE. A growing population resulted in increasingly larger and more sophisticated reservoirs (e.g. dams, channels, filtration, etc.). Urban planning and layout increasingly became interlinked with reservoir systems, creating anthropogenic landscapes still visible today. Further, maintaining reservoir water quality would have been crucial to curtail the presence of waterborne parasites and diseases, such as hepatic schistosomiasis, and the build-up of noxious elements such as nitrogen. The Maya kept water clean by creating wetland biospheres through the use of certain surface and subsurface plants, as well as aquatic life.

A series of prolonged droughts struck between c. 800 and 930 CE. When reservoir levels began dropping, water quality worsened and water plants died, along with Maya kingship. Maya abandoned kings and cities, dispersing out of the interior southern lowlands in all directions. While this response was drastic, it was an adaptive strategy — one that worked, as evidenced by the over seven million Maya currently living in Central America and elsewhere.

Maya farmers survived because they relied on sustainable agricultural practices and forest management, both designed within the constructs of their worldview. The insights I have gained from the archaeological record and my Maya crew are a roadmap for a more sustainable future for us all. By the end of my presentation, I hope to convince you rethinking how we view and interact with the world is the first step for a sustainable future.

Click on the screenshot below to view Lisa’s presentation.

Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation
Click on image to link to Lisa’s ClimateCultures talk, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’ https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/1_b0f1i6fj

Find out more

Lisa has shared some suggested reading from her research, for you to explore beyond her presentation. You can also read her earlier ClimateCultures post, Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings.

Larmon, Jean T., H. Gregory McDonald, Stanley Ambrose, Larisa R. G. DeSantis, and Lisa J. Lucero (2019): A Year in the Life of a Giant Ground Sloth During the Last Glacial Maximum in Belize. (Science Advances, 5:eaau1200).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2017): Ancient Maya Water Management, Droughts, and Urban Diaspora: Implications for the Present, pages 162-188 in Tropical Forest Conservation: Long-Term Processes of Human Evolution, Cultural Adaptations and Consumption Patterns, edited by Nuria Sanz, Rachel Christina Lewis, Jose Pulido Mata, and Chantal Connaughton (UNESCO, Mexico).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2018): A Cosmology of Conservation in the Ancient Maya World. (Journal of Anthropological Research. 74:327-359).

Lucero, Lisa J., and Jesann Gonzalez Cruz (2020): Reconceptualizing Urbanism: Insights from Maya Cosmology. (Frontiers in Sustainable Cities: Urban Resource Management, 2:1).

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
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On Green Verges

Writer Julian Bishop, living on the very edge of the metropolis, found a fascination with local verges during Covid-19 lockdown — and their previously unregarded nature took up residency in his imagination, leading him to a poetic challenge.


 1,210 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Odd, but lockdown opened up the world for me more than closing it down. I live on the very edge of London (High Barnet, actually) in what we joke is the last road in London. Two minutes’ drive away, houses give way to fields and woods before being reined in by the M25. A true green belt.

Being a busy London-sort, my direction of travel used to be either by car to another conurbation or by Tube into a metropolis. Oh, I’d walk to the gym to do a treadmill run and take the dog around the block. Lots of treadmills to choose from, in fact.

And then all the treadmills stopped. My regular journeys into London, aimless shopping trips, poetry readings, my regular contemporary poetry workshop in Enfield — all ground to a halt almost overnight.

The lack of a gym was easy to fix — I started to run (and walk the dog) through the mysterious green acres I’d dismissed as ‘not real countryside’. And gradually my forays extended deeper and deeper, further and further.

Life on the verges

I discovered a bluebell wood, a marvellous open space called charmingly Saffron Green, an ancient yew wood, a stream I never knew existed, which is a source of Dollis Brook… I could go on. And when I ran along the roads, I started to look down and around rather than straight ahead. I became obsessed with the verges — so many wildflowers and verge-dwellers giving their presence away with little quivers in the grass.

Showing verges at Saffron Green, Herts
Living verges – Saffron Green
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

And I began to notice what fellow ClimateCultures member Dave Hubble described in his recent blog as “the beauty in ugliness”, particularly on the unloved verges with their dramatic stands of hemlock, beefy cow parsleys and diverse grasses. My run takes me alongside a short stretch of the A1, which foamed with hemlock in June — how many motorists realised they were driving through a natural toxic cloud? And what I ran or walked past every day slowly took up residency in my head.

All this while, I’d been responding to lockdown through poetry. I decided to take up the challenge set by fellow poet Jacqueline Saphra (whose Poetry School classes I used to attend pre-covid) who decided to write a sonnet a day. I think I lasted about three days… and Jacqui went on to write a hundred (she’s been recording them and putting them up on Twitter).

The Sonnet Room

But I managed a couple of dozen — and noticed, as they developed, the predictable themes about missing loved ones and fear of the future gave way to these unremarkable and unloved stalwarts of the natural world. I took notes for what I called my ‘Sonnet Room’, which I decorated with all these wonderful so-called ‘weeds’. I dreamt of bittersweet, common hogweeds. The bluebell wood earned a sonnet of its own — as did Saffron Green, which was published as part of Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project.

Showing bluebell woods
Bluebell woods
Photograph: Julian Bishop © 2020

Some of these new poems I’ve included in a submission for a pamphlet that I’m hoping to get illustrated and printed.

And other poems presented themselves beyond the sonnet form: a sunbathing grass snake spotted one day on the road verge, crawling over a pile of laughing-gas canisters; a hedgehog (sadly knocked over); the binbag-strewn ditches; a bramble next to a fly-tip, with the biggest blackberries I’ve ever seen…

So lockdown was (excuse the pun) an extremely fruitful time as a poet — and now I’m hooked. What will the bluebell wood look like in the dead of winter? Saffron Green frosted? The stream in flood? How will the verges look next year when the council cutters come back with a vengeance?

Saffron Green

I discovered it on a run – something
I’d never done before, exploring
the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone,
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just feet away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane
rush by, the tang of arcane
carbon in its wake, now obsolete
as packed tubes or nine to five
and I was astounded to be alive.

 

The Hunt

Such silent nights – roads breathless
as if they were infected. What we’d lost –
constant traffic, the drizzle of exhaust –
invisible and insidious as asbestos
or the virus itself. Then a blood-clabbering
sound emerged: a nightly chorus,
foxes hollering like a hunt in reverse –
as if hounded animals were fighting
back. A beastly untameable disease
stalked the streets while humans retreated
like quarry to a den, our vulnerabilities
sniffed out by a hungry meat-eater.
Lives on pause for weeks – it smacked
of wild animals getting their own back.

 

Rush Hour

One month in and a wild rush hour
quickened along the verges, nature
slamming down hard on the accelerator –
rigs of cow parsley towered
over kerbs in Galley Lane, exploding
into stars, rivers of bluebells lapped
against the tarmac on a surge of sap
fuelled by a million lost springs.
Dandelions had no time to turn clocks
into ashes when the lockdown stopped.
Air charged with birdsong soured
in the roar of a more familiar rush hour;
when strimmers returned to crew-cut
the verges, all our new rivers dried up.

Poems © Julian Bishop 2020


Find out more

Julian previously contributed The Hunt for Day 21 of our Quarantine Connection series, and some of his recent poems appear in a chapbook anthology, Poems for the Planet, alongside three other contributors: Maggie Butt, Sarah Doyle and Cheryl Moskowitz. Julian says: “The four of us launched it just a couple of weeks before lockdown at the Faversham Literary Festival in Kent, sharing a bill that included Jenny Eclair, Ken Livingstone and Everything But the Girl singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn. Our London launch was at Christ Church in Southgate which is registered as an Eco Church with A Rocha (an international network of environmental organisations with a Christian ethos).” Poems for the Planet is available from Maggie Butt’s website.

Julian mentioned Dave Hubble’s ClimateCultures post, On Re-emergence and the Avoidance of Clichés, where Dave comments: “I am forever intrigued by the idea of finding beauty in that which is not typically considered beautiful.”

Hertfordshire’s Community Archives project published Julian’s poem Saffron Green on their community website Herts Memories, in July 2020.

You can find Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets on Twitter, and more information on 100 days of sonnets: unlocking that maddening door at her website. See The Poetry School for their courses, including with Jacqueline.

UK charity Plantlife has published a Good Verge Guide – a different approach to managing our waysides and verges (2016) and a guide to plant life on our road verges, Road verges – Last refuge for some of our rarest wild flowers and plants (2017). They are currently running their Road Verge Campaign: “If all the UK’s road verges were managed according to our guidelines, there could be 400 billion more flowers, equivalent to an extra quarter of a million acres of meadow. Just imagine!”

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.
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A Queer Path to Wellbeing

Artist James Aldridge explores experiences of being ‘other’ as an ability to see beyond the boundaries of binary distinctions: offering us signs of a more inclusive queer nature, from a place that until now has been the edge.


2,670 words: estimated reading time = 10.5 minutes


When I was growing up I experienced my own queerness as not belonging, not being ‘normal’. When I came out as a young man I took the only label I felt was available to me and defined myself as gay, as other. Now at this time in my life I see my queerness as a gift, an ability to see beyond the boundaries between straight and gay, masculine and feminine, human and nature.

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.

When I first came out as gay I tried to live in a city. I tried to find somewhere that I belonged by being with other gay people, but it wasn’t me. In the end we chose to live in a rural area, somewhere I feel I have more room to be myself, more opportunity to be with animals and plants and experience connection with the more than human world.

Queer Nature: showing 'The Ash Looks Back' by artist James Aldridge
The Ash Looks Back
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

I’ve taken a long time to get here, and it’s not been an easy journey. At the point of writing this piece I am 47, married to my husband, Dad to our little boy and living in a Wiltshire village. I am at the start of a relatively new path in learning about climate justice, triggered by discussions with fellow team members at Climate Museum UK. This writing is based on my own experiences and beliefs. I can’t talk for people of colour, or others disproportionately affected by the climate and ecological crises, but I can share the perspective offered by my Queerness.

Paying attention to queer nature

So, at this time of ecological and social collapse, of climate breakdown, with the falling away of old structures, what role do Queer people and perspectives have to play?

“We need guides to help us move through this liminality (and) we have a right to bring our gifts to the world.”

For the Wild podcast: Queer Nature

My practice as an artist who works with people and places focuses on enabling a sense of identity to emerge through embodied experience of, and artful response to, my/your immediate environment. The Queer Nature podcast talks about the skills and awareness that Queer people have developed as a result of the threat of violence, and the consequent need for hyper-awareness of and sensitivity to our environment. This ability to pay close attention to our sensory experiences, and the possibility of translating that into a practice of paying attention to non-human voices, is a by-product of the trauma that we have experienced as a community.

Queer Nature: showing 'Walking Bundle (Wrestler)' by artist James Aldridge
Walking Bundle (Wrestler)
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

As Queer people have experienced the trauma of being disconnected from and endangered by mainstream society, so Western society as a whole has experienced the trauma of disconnection from what we have come to call Nature. These binary distinctions divide and separate us through words and perceptions in a way that doesn’t fit the underlying reality. There is no human/nature split, apart from in our thoughts. Colonialism has taught us that we can act independently of Nature, that we are both separate and in control, but as anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us “We can’t do anything at all, can’t be us, without so many other species.”

Being well with change and uncertainty

The Queer Nature podcast describes Queerness “as a becoming… that arises from destabilisation”. My experiences 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.

My arts practice, and the time that I have spent exploring and defining my identity through interaction with non-human beings, has provided me with a means of becoming-with the land. As my good friend the artist Kathy Mead-Skerritt reminds me, it is about “a realisation of our indivisibility”.

Colonisation has taught us that Nature is other, Blackness is other, Queerness is other. Inclusion may invite us in to give us a place at the table sometimes, a place within the city walls, but I value my access to the rich wild life beyond those walls, and the opportunity to live side-by-side with non-human others. Talk of collapse is scary, the ‘end of normal’ can be scary too, but for those of us that have lived outside of normal for much of our lives there is a certain familiarity to it.

“The ecological view to come… is a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definitive centre or edge. The ecological thought is intrinsically Queer.”

— Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought

Queer Nature: showing a film still from Water Body, by artist James Aldridge
Water Body (film still)
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

When I was younger I worked to support the development of a sustainable future. More recently I have shifted towards learning to be well with change and uncertainty. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or have given up, but that I believe we need to be more humble, more outward-facing, and that art can help us with that. Art that is grounded in listening and witnessing, that allows us to slow down, open up and accept our place within vast interconnected systems, can change our way of seeing the world, even if only for a moment. As Nora Bateson writes, through the experience of making art “…we are pulled from our illusion that we can watch life from our safe place at the window. We are participants in the process.”

We can use art to unpick inherited ways of thinking and perceiving, that have led us to act without empathy for others, or awareness of our place within wider systems. As Jonathan Rowson has written, it is this lack of awareness that is the ultimate cause of the crises that we find ourselves in, “Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive, or to know what we know.”

If we want to move on from what Donna Haraway has called the Capitalocene, to the Cthulucene, from the end of one world to the beginning of another, then we need to develop a culture that values ‘multi-species stories and practices’, or what Haraway calls sympoiesis (making with) rather than autopoiesis (self making). Harraway chooses Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene to make clear that it is the system that is at fault, not us as a species. As Queer Nature describe it in the For the Wild podcast, the word Anthropocene relies on a “colonial idea that all humans are inherently bad rather seeing who has had power and enacted ecocide.”

Walking with others

When I first started out on a journey to explore what Queering and Queerness meant to me as an artist, it was as research for a proposal that I was writing. I’m yet to hear if my proposal was successful, but what I have ended up with is a language with which to make sense of my practice, and the world in which I find myself.

As some of us champion a move towards valuing difference, redistributing power and the right for people to live beyond binaries, others are responding with fear to the end of familiar ways of living, and the loss of colonial power. They react by building walls and promoting forms of politics that widen divisions. In such times it can seem too small an action to walk, talk and make, but that is my form of activism, researching how to be well with change by ‘walking with’ others.

Queer Nature: showing 'Decay is the Deep Heart of Spring' by artist James Aldridge
Decay is the Deep Dark Heart of Spring
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

“Walking-with is a deliberate strategy of unlearning, unsettling and queering how walking methods are framed and used…”

— Walking Lab, Why Walking the Common is More Than a Walk In The Park

What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.

“Since colonisation is a two-way street, working on the colonised and those who stand to benefit… decolonisation, breaking apart the myths and binaries of civilisation will benefit everyone, including… the land and non-human animals.”

— Jesus Radicals, A Holy Queering

We need to work together to support each other through these challenging times, and to develop ways of thinking, seeing and being that are based on relationship. We need to (Re)wild ourselves and the land through letting go of pre-conceived ideas of what is normal or right and pay attention to what the land itself has to teach us. (I put the Re of Rewilding in brackets because I’m not sure that Rewilding isn’t itself based on the idea of a return to a romantic past that never existed. Wilding for now feels less weighed down with baggage.)

‘Ecological restoration…should no longer be the anthropocentric revival of a pastoral utopia that may have been.’

— Rachel Weaver, About Place Journal

showing 'Listening' by artist James Aldridge
Listening
Image: James Aldridge © 2020 jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk

Part of this journey that I am on is about growing more comfortable with not knowing where I’m going. I am learning that there is no neat and tidy endpoint at which everything is picked apart and understood. That the world isn’t ‘out there’ to be saved, it is in us and we in it. And that nothing is fixed, because everything is connected, and every action, however small, can and does have an effect.

At one point I lost all hope of a future, as my knowledge of the climate crisis increased things looked more and more bleak, and I grieved for the future that my family had lost. Now I feel a sense of reassurance that being in the here and now, and acting from a position of being fully myself, as part of a supportive system, is the best and perhaps the only way that I can do good in the world.


Find out more

As a freelance artist, James works with a range of organisations, including Climate Museum UK which was created by fellow ClimateCultures member Bridget McKenzie as a mobile and digital museum creatively stirring and collecting responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Climate Museum UK produces and collects creative activities, games, artworks and books, and uses these in events to engage people.

For The Wild — an anthology of the Anthropocene focused on land-based protection, co-liberation and intersectional storytelling rooted in a paradigm shift from human supremacy towards deep ecology — includes an extensive podcast series. The episode Queer Nature on Reclaiming Wild Safe Space features Pinar and So, founders of Queer Nature, an education and ancestral skills programme which recognises that “many people, including LGBTQ2+ people, have for various reasons not had easy cultural access to outdoors pursuits, and envisions and implements ecological literacy and wilderness self-reliance skills as vital and often overlooked parts of the healing and wholing of populations who have been silenced, marginalized, and even represented as ‘unnatural.'”

In The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2012), Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, nor does ‘Nature’ exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realising this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought. ‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene is a profile of Morton by Alex Blasdel in The Guardian (15/6/17).

Jonathan Rowson’s post discussing our inability to see how we see, How to think about the meta-crisis without getting too excited, is published at Medium (14/2/20).

Why Walking the Common is more than a Walk in the Park by Nike Romano, Veronica Mitchell & Vivienne Bozalek is published in a special issue of Journal of Public Pedagogies (Number 4, 2019), guest-edited by WalkingLab, an international research project with a goal to create a collaborative network and partnership between artists, arts organisations, activists, scholars and educators. 

A Holy Queering: Rewilding Civilized Sexualities (27/4/11) is part of a series for the Jesus Radicals collaborative site, which focuses on “undoing oppressions from a framework of anarchist politics and liberative Christianity”, explaining anarchist stances on a range of issues: “And, since our place within creation is largely ignored within Christian theology and classical anarchist politics, we explore our relationship with the environment, as well as human relationships with non-human animals.”

You can read Donna Haraway’s 2015 paper Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin, online at the Environmental Humanities journal.

Rachel Weaver’s article, Soundscape Ecology and Uncivilized Philosophy in the Quarry, is published in About Place Journal (May 2018).

Finally, Randall Amster has published a recent essay in The Ecologist (3/2/20). Beyond the Anthropocene includes a very brief account of some of the alternatives suggested for the Anthropocene label, in a wider discussion of what this new age means for us and what our legacy might be and the agency with which we can shape that. “What might follow? The abject urgency of an eponymous Anthropocene makes us all futurists, practically and poetically, and suggests that the promulgation of any human future isn’t merely a spectator sport. … Dreamers and pragmatists alike can unite in the view that another world, a just future with bold vision, is both desired and required.”

***

Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, adds

This is the fourth post in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of expressing something of the more-than-human in the form of a signal for humanity. James himself says of this piece that “‘Signals from the Edge’ was my starting point but perhaps it has evolved into something slightly different. I’m sending a signal from where I find myself, which has up to now been at the edge.”

Unlike our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, which has a fairly fixed shape, Signals from the Edge develops as it grows. Each contribution stimulates the series to be more than it was up to that point. The edge shifts in shape and in scope and in what a signal might consist of, what it shows of us. Previous offerings have been a flash fiction, an essay/video, a short story — each with a separate reflective piece to accompany it. Here, they are joined by James’s personal essay, with his visual art embedded.

Future pieces will take the form further still — and notions of ‘signal’ and of ‘edge’. In creating the idea for this series, I speculated whether a signal might be a message from elsewhere — whether one meant for our species or one intended for another kind entirely, and which we overhear by chance. Or it might be an artefact of some other consciousness, or an abstraction of our material world. Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense amidst the confusion of human being. What would be your signal, and what edge might it speak from?

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...
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All the Little Gods Surrounding Us

James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.


1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes


Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.

Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.

‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’

The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.

The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has

Spent its whole life
In preparation for an instant,
Learning to fix its being
To a needle point flaring lightless

Presence: Showing 'Owl', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Owl’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“

‘Falling always out of absence into open air’

Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.

Presence: Showing 'Kingfisher', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Kingfisher’
Art & text: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.

In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.

Can we nail the world shut
long enough to discover everything

and

I don’t want to know the name
of the colour of this sky

And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.

A presence in the meeting point

The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.

Presence: showing 'Rook', from the collection 'Winged' by James Roberts
‘Rook’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.

James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.

Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.

And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough
Will I learn to feel the wind
Without wanting to know
What it’s saying?


Find out more

Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.

James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Towards an Erotics of Place

Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape

My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…

Desert Quartet - the cover of the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.

It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.

Dungeness, southern England’s ‘shingle desert’
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

Desert Quartet — desert life

Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!

Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.

Mongolia
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories…  Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.

My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways. 

A desert calling

Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.

At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.

Desert Quartet - showing a page from the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
‘Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape’, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank

I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…

“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.


Find out more

Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).

You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, at Unusual Places. And there is more to discover at Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”

The Visionary Spirit: Awakening to the Imaginal Realm in the Transformocene Age by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, UK (2018). You can read an interview with Mick about the book: Awakening to the Transformocene Age. Mick talks about his previous book, The Unselfish Spirit, in this 2014 podcast and you can watch his recent talk at the Into The Wild Festival, Summer 2019, introduced by James.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding is the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”

You can watch James’ film Steadfast, and more of his films, on Vimeo. And don’t forget to check out Finding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts, “Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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