Multidisciplinary artist Anthony Bennett shares the inspiration behind sculptures on the crucial role of the usually disregarded fungus in returning life to soils following mass extinction events — and what this offers us in imagining possible human extinction.
Dead Kids Fingers is a project I started some years ago now. I’ve always been a political animal. Over the years I’ve been involved in many kinds of political causes. Environmentalism, for the last ten years or so, has reinvigorated my passion for social justice.
Through the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, which I co-conceived with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, I met a number of scientists at the University and through conversations with them, I started to learn about the tasks and the enormous issues which their research is focused upon, facing society now, and in the near future. Research concerning climate change, food security, all sorts of things, including depletion of global resources.
The fungus factor in our soils
I was particularly inspired by soil scientist/mycologist Professor Duncan Cameron. Our conversations have resulted in a number of artwork projects, and continue to do so. For one such project, I considered the worst-case scenario facing the human race; that if it doesn’t adapt and change its ways, then it could become extinct. The idea of human extinction really knocked me sideways. I suppose it fascinated me.
I learned that following the three last great Mass Extinctions on the planet, the organism that took a lead in restoring life on the planet was fungus. I learned that it originally created the soil itself, and that it has built the soil ever since by means of its mycelium rotting matter and repurposing it as soil. That we owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The concept of ‘The Wood Wide Web’, coined by Duncan’s teacher and colleague Professor Sir David Read, the revelation of the hidden but active connectivity of mycelium, reinvigorated my lifelong yearning for active and purposeful collaboration, creative and open, with no proclivity to compromise or to dumbing down.
Through my research I came across the fungus Dead Man’s Fingers. Considering a post-extinction planet, and the fact that fungus is the thing which will restore some sort of life-forms, I employed the idea to use the device of a child’s finger, emerging from the earth, as a metaphor for post extinction life re-emerging, human or otherwise.
Dead Kids Fingers
I started creating sculptures at my studio, and then created installations in woodland areas and forests nearby. I took photographs which I shared online, and exhibited some of them in group art shows, with the statement:
“Dead kids fingers address the fact that: With or without humans, fungus will revitalize the earth, as it has done following previous global extinctions. And that all life on earth is connected. In the hope that future generations will embrace the mycelial world, learn from it, and engage with it in mutualistic symbiosis.”
Maybe the lessons learned could then be put to use to actually fend off the next extinction? A purpose to life in the Anthropocene.
NB: click on image to enter slideshow and then view full size.
Check out Anthony’s Instagram feed @absculpts for up to date and ongoing artworks. Anthony contributed Ace of Wands to Week 3 of our Quarantine Connection series in 2020.
You can explore the most recent Festival of the Mind schedule, for 2020, which includes a series of podcasts on various climate change, extinction and health topics — among them, Anthony’s Bittersweet Air exhibition and podcast on his work on soil in collaboration with Professor Tim Daniell.
You can find out about Professor Duncan Cameron’s work on resource fluxes and chemical signals in plant-microbe symbioses in agricultural and natural systems at his website.
This piece by Taylor Kubota of Stanford University (15/5/19) for Science X describes how scientists built on the pioneering work of Professor Sir David Read on fungal symbiosis to map the global Wood Wide Web.
Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.
2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos
The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.
I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.
As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.
I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.
“Galvanising the faithful”
‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.
Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’
I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.
Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.
There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.
When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.
“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”
As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.
Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:
Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.
“You learn as much as you teach”
We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.
As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.
Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.
Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:
“Ecology begins on your doorstep”
Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.
I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.
Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:
Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:
“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”
She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.
“Our new brief”
So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.
Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:
Creativity – “cultivating curiosity” Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together” Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity” Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”
She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.
Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.
Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’
One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?
I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.
Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!
Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!
Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.
Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.
Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.
Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.
As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.
Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages.
The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty.
The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically.
The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University.
Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action.
Photographer Veronica Worrall explores how art can offer an important emotional response to global pandemic and climate crises, sharing her ‘lockdown’ project to generate images — where photography partners with natural processes to produce a visual essay of optimism.
1,560 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
In the early months of Covid-19 lockdown I found an escape in an azure canopy. I mentally soared over my garden, taking refuge in the exquisite beauty of the empty skies. I found solace from the devastating pandemic. The budding leaves and blossoms showed themselves with exuberance against a royal blue which dimmed elegantly to the horizon. An occasional wisp of cloud offered a sense of distance — a dream hovering. Humanity was facing disaster and yet my garden was thriving. I was being torn between relief that nature was being given a chance and the tragedy that was unfolding across the globe. Like many I turned to capturing images of my garden’s beauty whilst I confronted human mortality.
I was reminded of the very first photographs which were taken to convey a state of mind, the work of Alfred Stieglitz. In 1922 and again 1923 to 1934 Stieglitz made photographic series initially called Songs of the Sky and later Equivalents. Stieglitz had a tumultuous affair through these years with the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He pointed his camera skywards “purposely disorientating”, purposely seeking to take his viewer to his own emotional state. The resultant images of clouds, more than 200, were Stieglitz’s equivalent of his emotions, what Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais has described — in his book accompanying the 2018 ‘Shape of Light Exhibition’ at the Tate Modern London — as “his inner resonance of the chaos in (his) world and his relationship to that chaos”. De l’Ecotais goes on to discuss the exhibited samples of the Equivalent images, suggesting that Stieglitz’s work, although not strictly abstract, was the forerunner of photography moving out from being a purely representative medium. This led the way for photographers to experiment with their own ‘equivalents’. They worked to convey creatively their own emotion following other artists of that time, such as O’Keefe, who were exploring how visual art might evoke the same emotional response as music.
So it is no surprise that many photographers during our 21st-century global pandemic have looked to portray their own psychological state. I was drawn to the skies to express both my joy and fear.
Emotional response and global crisis
This is not the first time in stressful moments that I have used the sky as a haven from my extreme emotions. For example, I took photographs following a Force 10 storm in the Arctic Sea after the boat on which I travelled responded to a Mayday callout. Eventually the other boat was found tucked into a safe anchorage and no one was lost, but the relief was short.
During this trip, I personally witnessed the extent of climate change. These photographs taken after the storm hold both my relief but also my fear of imminent danger. They spoke to me of a unique moment of time and space, when disaster can be averted. And so it was, one evening three years later, in the early days of our global pandemic, the sky outside my front door symbolised both my dread and my hope. My photograph I called Optimistic Outlook.
The image responds
This was a moment when my photography became an ‘art’ aesthetic. The importance of the image was the philosophy involved and my eye’s attempt (quoting George Clarke’s book, The Photograph) “to transform the most obvious of things into its unique potential” — an art equivalent. This image captured my passionate hope that we come through this global chaos with a deeper understanding of how humanity needs to change radically to avoid the predicted tipping point that would result in global chaos, set out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, Impacts of 1.5ºC of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems.
Two months later, May’s warmth filtered into my garden, I was taking refuge in the blossom against perfect blue. I became mesmerised by the delicate beauty. I was not the only one. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram evidenced a burgeoning re-connection between people and the natural world. How could this be sustained? How could we stay reconnected?
This thought seeded my ‘lockdown project’, a continuation of my earlier exploration of partnering with natural processes to make art, in ‘Project Unseen’. My photographs of blue skies and blossom were returned to the trees and left for months, as shown in the image above. Nature’s elements and creatures traced over my images. Whilst monitoring my images attached to the trees a few months later, I noticed the skies overhead were becoming crisscrossed with vapour trails as lockdown relaxed. The sky was symbolising my concern that lessons were not being learnt in a rush to return to unsustainable travel and consumer trading.
Reconnected in hope
Nevertheless, I was determined to continue with my ‘lockdown’ project. My ‘strung up’ photographs were taking a battering in a gale and many images had been significantly degraded — a layer of metaphor. I retrieved them and, although feeling despondent, I decided for this project I would not dwell on dark messaging but use these images as a visual essay of optimism — semi abstracts, my ‘Equivalents’ of hope. I would strive to stay positive in a time of chaos. The images Hope 1 to 5 are part of my project ‘Stay Reconnected’.
Together Nature and I created colourful art pieces, symbolic of the much-needed partnership. We convey the joyful reconnection many had found in our gardens, parks and wayside walks. The images hold my hope for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill presented to the UK Parliament on 2nd September. This is the direction needed to preserve nature’s systems and diversity for future generations.
In past weeks the youngsters have returned to their studies preparing for their futures. Holidays are over and across the world Covid-19 cases are surging upwards again. Chaos is reported across trade and travel industries subjected to a conflicting renewal of government restrictions. The sky has returned to a dome of deep blue, wearing again its symbolic robe — asking us to revisit what is important. More than ever cooperative wisdom is required. Is it possible for our world leaders to collaborate on strategies, policies and practices that allow humanity to stay re-connected to the essence of our existence — the essence captured on cameras as trees blossomed under clear blue skies?
You can see some of Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series at the Met Museum’s online collection. As the note there explains, “In these purposely disorienting and nearly abstract images, Stieglitz sought to arouse in the viewer the emotional equivalent of his own state of mind at the time he took the picture and to show that the content of a photograph was different from its subject. The Equivalents trace Stieglitz’s emotional response to nature through periods of ecstasy and darkness, romantic engagement, and confronting mortality.”
You can follow progress (hopefully) on the UK Parliament’s Climate and Ecology Bill 2019-21, in the Parliamentary Business Progress. It is a Private Members’ Bill, presented by Green MP Caroline Lucas, “to require the Prime Minister to achieve climate and ecology objectives; to give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to work with the Secretary of State in creating that strategy; to give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy”, and is due to be debated in its Second Reading in Parliament in March 2021.
An experimental artist using photography to capture movement, time and natural processes, working with nature and traditional alternative photography in attempts to reduce her artist footprint ... Read More
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.
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.
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
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.
“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
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).
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.”
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?
Writer and photographer Mike Hembury spent a week on an Inner Hebridean sailing trip as part of Sail Britain’s multidisciplinary Coastline Project. He recalls this small group’s ecological encounters and shares poems and photographs they inspired in him.
2,510 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes
The West Coast of Scotland offers some of the most spectacular seascapes to be found anywhere in the British Isles. So I was particularly excited to be given the chance to join in with Sail Britain’s Coastline Project for a week in May. Part oceanographic research project, part artist’s residency, part hands-on experience for budding and seasoned sailors alike, the Coastline Project provides a unique way of coming to grips with some of the ecological issues facing Britain’s marine environment, in a manner that is interdisciplinary, unconventional and infused with an all-pervasive love of the sea.
Our focus for the week was to be plastic pollution, and our itinerary was to be counter-clockwise around Mull, taking in the Inner Hebrides islands of Coll, Lunga, Ulva and Staffa along the way, together with a host of hidden and sometimes nigh-on inaccessible anchorages.
My own personal focus on our little expedition was threefold: I had set myself the task of producing a poetic and photographic record of the journey, and was keen to receive some up-to-date and first-hand information on the current ecological plight of Britain’s Atlantic shores. On top of that, for some time now I had been looking out for an opportunity to improve my sailing skills in tidal waters, and the West Coast of Scotland was high on my list.
I joined up with the Alcuin — a Westerly Oceanranger 38 — on May 18th in the bustling port town of Oban, where I was greeted by our skipper, and Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, an easy-going and affable chap in his mid-thirties, who would probably not look out of place on a late 19th-century British polar expedition.
We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Here in Oban.
— from Oban
After introductions to the rest of the crew — a postgraduate researcher in fluid dynamics from Cambridge, a married couple with a passion for sailing and the environment, and the wandering CEO of a bespoke mapmaking company — we left immediately for our first anchorage, on the western side of the Island of Kerrera, just out of sight of Oban harbour.
Rituals and realisation
Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
Bladder, spiral, channel
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.
— from Kerrera
Next morning we rendezvoused with Janie and Russ, two local plastic pollution activists. They guided us to a beach on Kerrera’s northern headland, and we began what would become a daily ritual: beach-cleaning. We combed the high-water line, extracting netting, stretches of rope and pieces of plastic packaging out from among the wracks slowly drying in the weak northern sun.
Further up the shore, tufts of blue plastic seemed to grow among the grass, remnants of seemingly ubiquitous plastic rope that had become embedded in the soil. After an hour or so, we gathered together to view and sift through our findings — buckets and buckets of detritus, in many different shapes and forms. Our guide Janie was heartened. Apparently this was a ‘good’ haul. Good, as in relatively small. By contrast, those of us who are new to the game were flabbergasted by the amount of non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary waste that we had just dug out of a seemingly pristine shoreline.
It’s a story that was repeated throughout our week with the Coastline Project: stunningly beautiful islands, inlets and lochs, all far away from the nearest human habitation, but not one of them unaffected by the careless wastefulness of the Anthropocene. The wild shorelines of Western Scotland are saturated in plastic, suffocating in a stream of waste that can only be cured by turning it off at the source.
A lot of the debris that we found could easily be traced to the local fishing industry, and more specifically, to fish farms. Such finds included thirty-foot pieces of bright blue tubing, and grey flotation containers as large as a fridge. But it was something else — a much smaller find — that started to bring fish farming into the focus of my attention during the course of the trip.
Perhaps subliminally at first, I had started to notice that there are unusual numbers of dead crabs on Scottish beaches. Having grown up on the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I know that it’s common enough to find a dead crab or two, belly-up on the beach. But this wasn’t one or two. By the time we had arrived at the windswept and wonderful island of Ulva — the Wolf Island — the evidence was starting to pile up. Something seemed to be seriously wrong here.
Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss.
— from On Ulva
I had no explanation at the time, but I took pictures of what I found, pictures that prompted me, back on dry land, to do a little research into possible causes of crab fatalities.
One cause often cited is lack of oxygen in the water, due for example to algal blooms or sudden changes in temperature.
Other possible causes are the toxic effects of fish farming. Salmon farms, it seems, use chemicals such as teflubenzuron to combat the infestations of sea lice that literally eat the tightly-packed fish alive. Sea lice are crustaceans. The chemicals used to kill them do not differentiate between the various types of crustacean that live in the ocean, and are equally toxic to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.
The beach at Ulva, with the striking numbers of dead crabs, was the site of two now-defunct fish farms, with two more active farms still in operation nearby. More than enough evidence, in my mind, for poisoning to be a plausible cause of death.
Of course, I am not a marine biologist, so ultimately I can do little more than speculate on issues of crustacean fatalities and fish farm toxicity.
Yet this is precisely where multidisciplinary projects such as Sail Britain are turning into an invaluable resource for marine ecology. Although our crew was sadly not equipped to deal with my belated findings, I did pass the information on to Oliver, who promised to incorporate fish farming more closely into his ecological itinerary. And my hope is that a member of some future crew, or interested marine biologist, will feel inclined to pick up where my own photographic and poetic efforts fall short.
Even so, my own limited research into the subject has shown me that the fish farming industry is not only highly unsustainable, but also massively toxic to the marine environment within which it operates.
Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
Perhaps With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Is a pretty weak force now
In the greater scheme of things.
— from The Corrie Breàchain
Our week of sailing around Mull was, coincidentally, the week in which over 8 million farmed salmon were killed by algal blooms in Norway. This followed a similar incident in Loch Fyne earlier in the year, in which ‘hundreds of tonnes’ of dead fish had to be removed from farms.
The waste from fish farms coats the seabed with a poisonous sludge that extinguishes all life below it — one of the reasons perhaps why the Scottish government is now considering the approval of deep-sea ‘superfarms’, in the hope that the combination of depth and currents will help dilute the waste before it hits the bottom.
On the other hand, one might be forgiven for assuming a more cynical motive: Out of sight, out of mind, anyone?
Salmon farms are also vectors for disease, and are having a hugely negative impact on wild salmon populations. And of course there is another, even more problematic aspect to keeping thousands, or even millions of fish together in a confined space, and that is that they need to be fed. And what they need to be fed on, largely, is fishmeal. That is to say, in order for beautifully packaged, and tastefully marketed Scottish salmon to arrive on the average fish eater’s plate, huge numbers of ‘lesser’ species — i.e. those not fit for human consumption — need to be industrially hoovered out of the sea. It has been estimated that nearly one-fifth of global sea fish catch is currently being used to produce fishmeal and oil for fish farms. One species particularly affected in the waters around Britain is the sandeel — tiny slivers of silver that also happen to be the favourite food of all manner of seabirds.
Which brings me to Lunga, part of a small chain of islands known as the Treshnish Isles. We cast anchor before Lunga with one particular purpose in mind: to catch a close-up view of the puffins that breed in underground burrows in the soft soil of the cliff tops. Puffins have no natural predators on the island but, nevertheless, their numbers are plummeting. On the Shetland Islands, for example, 33,000 puffins were recorded in the spring of 2000. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 570. And while environmental factors may be playing a role in the plight of the puffins, the decimation of their primary food source has to be high on the list of possible causes.
What can I say? Lunga, like so much of our trip, was a poignant reminder of the fragile beauty of the sea’s web of life. Our daily rituals of beach-cleaning, sailing, and witnessing the incredible natural heritage of the Inner Hebrides, had become familiarly, depressingly, marvellously, gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly,
Are we witnessing?
— from Lunga
Coastline project: our haul of pollution
To be honest, I had no idea what could come out of a trip such as this. As it was, I found the words pouring out of me, the sorrow welling up inside me, my heart and senses expanding as they always do when I’m near the sea. Whilst the others were exploring or pulling yet more rope out of the high-water wrack-line, I found myself staring at the patterns in the weed, or the dew on the grass, and feeling the need to preserve it all in some way, however inadequately.
Leaving Ulva in particular, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the unforgivably tragic consequences of what it was that we — humanity — have collectively unleashed.
As if in answer, that was the very moment when we were visited by a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, spiralling beneath the bow of our ship and leaping out of the water. Absolutely impossible to let depression and seeming futility win in such a moment! It’s certainly easy enough though, in these harrowing times, to let oneself be pulled into a focus on death and destruction. But how much more inspiring to consider the beauty of life, in all its exuberance, unbidden and joyful.
But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.
— from Return to Oban
In our brief week of exploring the wonders of the Scottish shores with the Coastline Project, we were struck repeatedly by the wild majesty of the scenery, the richness of the wildlife, even in the face of impending extinction, and the urgency of acting now, in order to turn the tide, and save what remains.
It’s not too late. But it will be soon, unless we start taking drastic action now.
For me personally, in addition to writing and participating in this autumn’s European-wide wave of environmental protests, I’m looking forward in particular to seeing my crewmates and skipper again in London in November, when Sail Britain will be organising a symposium and exhibition on the Coastline Project. My own contribution to the exhibition will be the series of photographs and poems that have emerged from that inspiring week in May. I am also hoping to publish both in book form — Sailing With Alcuin — if I can find a publisher brave enough to publish a photopoetic journal by a sailing environmentalist.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to Oliver Beardon and Sail Britain for their Coastline Project and the opportunity to take part. Ever since I was I child, I have been fascinated and awed by the sea, and thought I knew a thing or two about the state of the ocean. But in the space of a week, I had my love of the ocean renewed, and received fresh motivation to dedicating myself to saving the source of all life on our planet.
Find out more
For more on the Coastline Project programme exploring the coasts of the British Isles, visit the Sail Britain website: “While the boat, our team, and the idea forms a common narrative, each stage is be crewed by a different group of people from as varied a background as possible. Along each stage these groups develop as a coherent team, something which sailing is a wonderful catalyst for, to explore the people, identity, history and ecological importance of the places they visit and to develop individual research and responses.” The symposium and exhibition Mike mentioned is the Sail Britain End of Year Showfrom 21st – 24th November, in London.
If you have suggestions for publishers for Mike’s photopoetry book of his expedition, Sailing With Alcuin, do email him at writing[at]mikehembury[dot]org
To follow up on some of the environmental issues Mike discusses, see these recent news stories in The Independent and The Guardian: