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
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”.
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
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.
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.
In this piece — commissioned by artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman for their exhibition, Fool’s Gold — editor Mark Goldthorpe explores notions of value and care through our experience of objects as works of nature, culture and transformation.
How are we to value things? The objects we make, consume, keep, curate or discard? The natural world around us? The art that explores nature and culture? Artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman ask questions of value with Fool’s Gold, their new two-person exhibition. And, as their title suggests, simple answers — or those that appear simple and we find so attractive on the surface — are deceptive. With time, objects of convenience, of instant desire, of proven utility can become inconvenient, spent desires, markers of futility. Creations of modernity in relationship with ancient nature: things of the now and of deep time. The everyday and the deferred tomorrow.
Transforming human being and thinghood
Matter isn’t just inert, empty until given human meaning. As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, it’s vibrant and vital, making a world where “human being and thinghood overlap … the us and the it slip-slide into each other.”
Two artists, with three pieces each, together create an imaginary and immersive landscape that speaks of our transformation of the material world. Harrison’s cairns and Schilderman’s wishing well, Schilderman’s broken glass castle and Harrison’s array of quadrats, Harrison’s winter blues and Schilderman’s spiral wall speak to each other, allow us to look through and at them and encourage us to see, and to ask… What will we leave behind us? What can we repurpose to better ends?
Transformation is a common thread. Hayley Harrison finds her materials by foraging the waste she encounters in city and countryside: nature transformed and discarded is her natural resource. Pamela Schilderman’s own exploratory mode takes everyday objects and reveals through them another purpose, a new and unexpected expression.
Fool’s Gold: precautionary tales
There’s a fairy tale character to this new landscape, reframing our mundane perception of the world beyond the gallery and prompting us to see things differently. An artists’ landscape, it’s still the one that we inhabit and recreate daily through our countless choices and the compromises and constraints we live under. But the reuse and reshaping these six pieces bring about refashions the whole into something like a cautionary tale for our times. Or perhaps what academic and artist Renata Tyszczuk calls precautionary tales, which “might work with an imagination of the future based on the ethic of care and paying attention … caring as both a practice and an attitude: an attainment and responsiveness of an altered Earth and a new, strange reality.”
Signs of humanity’s alteration of the natural world are all around. They are much argued over, but with no room now for outright denial that there’s a problem with the planet. The conspiracy peddlers are still out there, of course, somewhere between a flat Earth and a moon that never was touched by human bootprints. Leave them in their delusional orbits, and let us talk. We can do so without feeling we have to agree, that there’s an argument we need to win, or we must at once put the world to rights.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic? When you think of the future, do you see something that’s already happened and we must decide how best to live with, or something as yet unrealised that we must make? Either way, we have choices to make. We might choose differently, but let’s agree there’s much to care about — to care for — and that we need to be creative in how we approach this.
Artist Tania Kovats says “I’m not naive; I don’t think art can stop the climate crisis, but I think it can give us new ways to think about it … Both in very conscious ways and in very unconscious ways, because our relationship with this crisis has entered our imaginations as much as it has entered our consciousnesses.” Art helps us engage imaginatively with possibilities — within ourselves and within the world.
A large part of what we know personally about the world is built on what we see. But our perceptions are flawed and incomplete. There’s just no way we can take the whole world in: it exceeds us. Imagination helps us plug perception’s gaps, to bridge the distance between us and other. But much of the time, imagination — fed in new and dazzling ways — leads us astray. Rather than connection with reality — real reality, the mineral, microbial and growing, breathing one that sits beneath and beyond our shiny, distracting world of artefacts — it brings a widening disconnect. We’re in nature — that photosynthesising, mutating, proliferating web of beings and bedrock that’s sedimenting, accreting, eroding and circulating to long beats of time that underpin our daily lives — but increasingly we believe we’re operating apart from it. We hold it in reserve: something separate and special and, when we come up against it on screens or adventures, sometimes something truly awesome. But our imaginations, day to day, become a bit dulled to what the world really is: how long it persists, how quickly it shifts, the scale of our rising billions’ impact upon it. So our imaginations need a reset from time to time, and art can transform our perceptions of the taken-for-granted.
Evoking beauty, provoking care
Beauty is perhaps something else we take for granted. Do you look for it in a gallery but not in your waste bin or on the littered margins of our public spaces? Does it reside only in perfection — in pristine nature, in a particular industrial design? Or is it also in the flaws and fractures, the failed experiments, the detritus and ruins of past success? And what of beauty that passes, and the beauty in passing as we let go of artefacts, ideas or habits whose time is up? Cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey describes a possible ethic of ‘palliative curation’ in a world where all nature is marked by the human. This anticipatory marking of transience “suggests another way of approaching this interval of uncertainty — creating opportunities to say ‘goodbye’” to loved landmarks and objects. We might observe their “stages of unmaking” through “rituals of leave-taking that help us bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘gone’.”
Sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.” Let us focus on objects then and, in sharing a space for conversations about ecological and climate predicaments, let’s each of us pay attention to and expand the scope of those things that are, as poet Alun Lewis expressed it, “within the parish of my care”. If it’s right that human being and thinghood overlap in a vital material world, then proper care for our objects is also care for our selves, and for the non-human selves we share the world with and seem bent on crowding out.
Discarded crisp packets turned inside out, plastic bags pulled into string to be wound and stretched, structures made from broken glass and imperfect salt crystals: frames and lenses through which to look again and see the familiar (always a deception) as new, strange, inviting. Full of potential once more, and offering containers for our hopes and for memories of nature we’d pushed down, unmarked and forgotten beneath the everyday. Build yourself a shiny cairn to honour and re-present those things of value that we’ve discarded, or now need to bid farewell. Make yourself a wishing well to express the better things we might bring about, the value we can now create. Fashion your own frame for the world and invite others to the view. Together, make a new path through the woods. And take care.
Click on image and expand for full size slideshow with captions.
Find out more
This piece arose as a commission from Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman as part of their project. Mark met with Hayley and Pamela at the British Library in November 2019, ahead of the completion of their pieces for the exhibition.
Fool’s Gold runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 14th March. It invites visitors to engage in conversations around the climate crisis and our use of materials. The exhibition is accompanied by workshops, talks, an animation and a live installation. There will be an In Conversation artist talk on Tuesday 6th March at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum at 6 pm (tickets £6). This project is funded by Arts Council England and Rugby Council, and supported by Practical Action, an innovative international development organisation based in Rugby and putting ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world.
Hayley Harrison is an artist whose work examines our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other — via discarded materials, text, performance and video.
Pamela Schilderman is an artist whose practice is strongly influenced by science exploring notions of identity and individuality through repetition, often juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm as though adjusting the lens of a microscope.
Writer and artist Jennifer Leach shared some of her stories at Reading’s Earth Living Festival. Here, she discusses these questioning tales for a world’s ending — and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity.
1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes
There is a profound sense of collective bewilderment in the air right now. A disbelief that we are alive at the very time the world as we know it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, coming to an end. There are theories and queries as to what this actually means — will Life on Earth end, will Homo Sapiens survive in any form, will the elite few succeed in their bid to safeguard an AI-supported future for themselves, will we all have to endure unbearable suffering? We are about to journey as we have never journeyed before. Permanence is already a foreign concept; it always was a delusional one. Already, the status quo is no more. On our internal radar we have seen it, and know it; we are now awaiting the shock waves.
In this context, how does one live? As an artist, how does one engage? Do we simply carry on, for now, until ‘now’ brings with it the storm we are all awaiting? Or do we drop the rhythm of conventional society, and walk out to meet the storm? Is our role to stand our ground, asking the uncomfortable and unanswerable questions?
I do not know the answers. Like many of us, I hear many calls. There is a call to action, which for me is being answered largely through a firm commitment to my local XR group; there is a strong call leading me into both immersive art practice and community ventures; there is the call to live each moment with a light heart and a sense of fun, and there is the call to hold fast to all that is dear, and to spend focused time with those I love. And Time tells me I cannot, in truth, answer all of these calls. At some point, I must choose.
Striving to find the rightful path for my organisation, Outrider Anthems, has provided me with a strong clue as to how I might be moving forward into this time of unknowing. In a remarkable and unexpected branding opportunity offered me by the talented and insightful young graduate, Ed Hendry, we have understood that Outrider Anthems is to declare itself a ‘sanctuary of creativity in the inevitable turbulence of climate breakdown’. We are building a strong team for this work, and paying close attention to what, in practice, it will mean. Following impulse and instinct, we trust that knowing will come when knowing needs to.
As an aside, I wonder how many collective shudders issued forth from that insouciant use of the ‘branding’ word. Used wisely, understood well, I have learnt the value of embracing what the commercial world has to offer, and to teach me. For Outrider Anthems, we worked hard and rigorously to hone a clarity of concept, purpose, mission and values, and in doing so, finally gained an authority that was previously obscured. It is a process I recommend.
In my personal work, I have been exploring these issues through story, as story is one of the most portable, direct and accessible art forms we have. They create a space where fears can be unmasked, held, explored, and honoured. The soundings are the first step in the process, and practical solutions play no role here.
My most abstract exploration of the letting go of fear is Dancing in the Dark, a work that is just ready to make its way out into the larger world through another new venture for Outrider Anthems: a dedicated Kickstarter campaign to create this visual story poem as a limited print first edition. (You can explore Dancing in the Dark, and how to get involved, via the link at the end of this post.)
Other questioning stories were written to share at the Earth Living Festival in Reading in May. This festival was a wonderful new venture established by Alice McGuigan to nurture, in Reading, a community learning to live in greater balance with the Earth. In the chill of a spring evening, by a quiet River Thames, and beneath a circle of listener-enclosing yew trees (all upshoots of one Mother Tree), I brought my tales. As the light waned and the day darkened, we explored greed, and need, and pain, and sorrow. Catastrophe and equanimity.
The human being sees life from one pair of eyes. Everything from this one pair of eyes. The first story grows from one of these eyeballs, a nascent hairy eyeball whose voracious appetite proves to be insatiable:
After one great turning of time, the eyeball woke one day and its razor gaze fell, like a blade, upon a new land far beyond the known shale ridge, a vision of waving fronds and swaying bands. And the engorged eyeball swivelled impassively towards this new goal, setting its inscrutable sights upon a new paradise. Off it went, scuttling across rocks, and through foam, between boulders, and under stones. Unswerving, unerring, grotesquely unnerving. And from it all creatures cowered and hid.
The eyeball cannot see. The Patterners can. Have you heard of the Patterners?
They are rare beings born engraved with the interconnected patterning of all things. You understand this, it is not something they have chosen? They are carved so. Their skin, their eyes, their tongue, their ears, their hearts, all engraved with the patterning of all things. Each waking moment, each dreaming state, they see the web. They see each knot, each node, see each and all as sacred weights in the integral patterning of holding. Each unique, essential in itself. One knot carelessly broken, is the first small hole in the web. Two knots broken is the first bigger hole in the web. And so it goes. And so it goes.
Who is to say what breaks the web? What ‘should’ we now do? How should we now act? In our daily lives, many of us will have noticed a growing sense of partition, as we judge not only our own actions, but those of others. Why is he saying yes to that plastic bag at the checkout? Why does she even ask if he needs one? Did you know X drove down to Y today to pick up a pair of party shoes from that designer outlet? So-and-So is flying again, off to Magaluf/Vietnam/Cuba, as if there’s no tomorrow. Judgement and separation set in.
And from this space a tale unfolds of an old man who finally meets the majestic icelands of his lifelong yearning, in the twilight of his dwindling years.
I don’t normally use words like magnificent; I don’t feel comfortable with them. But sometimes there is only one word that will do. It was so grand and beautiful that it made me cry. I got frozen tears in my beard, and hanging from my nose as well. I probably looked a sight, but it didn’t matter. I could not stop looking at the, at the magnificence of this sight. I stood there until I was so cold I could take no more…
And in the very same landscape, amidst the rising oceans and the shrinking ice, a woman rows in her boat across the ocean, leaving behind the luxury cruise liners, the activists and the warriors, to arrive in the shadow of the melting glacier:
Quietly I haul in my sodden oars, lay them softly in the rowlocks. Gently I seat myself. I turn up my collar and release my hood. My white hair falls loose. And in my lap I slowly place my hands face up to her glistening face. I bow in her cloudbound shadow. Her diminishing body drip drip drips upon my uncovered head. Quietly I sing to her, a lullaby of passing.
It is mystery
These are our viewpoints, those available to the limited frameworks of a human mind and imagination. However, there remains the word beyond. The final story offered the fragile thought that, shifting beyond our limited field of vision, all is as it is meant to be.
Upside out is inside down and here is neither there and thought is energy and matter is light and light is frozen as a waterfall that is placeless and ubiquitous and spaceless and timeless and infinite and eternal. And words that are vessels back down on Planet Earth, are mere echoes of energy, and each is an impartial resonance that holds, in itself, no power. Life and Death and Future and Past and Redemption and Ruin are all absorbed equally and mutually into the blue echo of dark Space. One hears nothing, for there is no means of carrying the words. It is mystery.
Find out more
Jennifer performed her stories at the Earth Living Festival in Reading on 11th May 2019, under the title In the Shadow. The festival was organised by Alice McGuigan, Outrider Anthems’ project manager for the earlier, year-long Festival of the Dark, in Reading.
Jennifer is producing Dancing in the Dark, combining her poem-story and art in a limited edition, high-quality artist’s book, on the Kickstarter platform. To find out more, to support this publication and receive a copy of the book, visit Dancing in the Dark – an artist’s book on Kickstarter.
You can find Ed Hendry — the designer who worked with Jennifer to create the new Outrider Anthems logo, branding, website and identity — and other examples of his work on Facebook and Behance.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe is pleased to have joined the relaunched Outrider Anthems as freelance creative administrator, organising publications such as Dancing in the Dark and a forthcoming series of Outrider Anthems events.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Wide Sargasso Sea, the classic novel by Jean Rhys: her prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and a story of blurred, alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference in race and gender.
2,830 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
A copy of Wide Sargasso Sea goes to Nancy Campbell for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.
Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.
Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.
One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?
The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.
No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones — more cunning, that’s all.’
And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.
Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.
For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.
I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.
An alien heat
Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”
It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.
They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.
Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.
Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.
Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:
‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’
‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’
She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.
Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.
She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the one she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”
It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.
Sargasso sea — a dangerous place
In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:
Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.
And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:
The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.
In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:
I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’
She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.
What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.
It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’
Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”
More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.
But what are you doing here, you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.
Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.
And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:
The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.
Find out more
Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature, Sarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”
The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”
Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”
A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Annie Dillard’s 1974 wonder-filled book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A classic, it nonetheless resists easy classification and explores, in equal measure, horror and beauty in nature: fixing both with Dillard’s hallmark unblinking stare.
2,900 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
A copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek goes to Veronica Sekules for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.
“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”
Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”
Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is — was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account — a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”
We glimpse the human life of the valley — the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:
“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”
Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:
“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting — how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”
Tinker creek: two paths to the more-than-human
Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later — looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” — Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.
As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.
Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”
“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”
Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:
“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”
A monster in a mason jar
Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”
Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it around for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.
“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”
This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the schoolyard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”
Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.”
“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”
She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”
“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”
To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror — and both in abundance — is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.
“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”
There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”
“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow — “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” — is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):
“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”
It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”
“I had been my whole life a bell…”
For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”
“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”
Find out more
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.