Giving Voice to the Nonhuman

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.


2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes


A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
— Dorothea Lange

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, to listen to the underwater 'ice voices' during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES, created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant for the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, Canada, from 24 Feb to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto photographic ice sculptures, Edwige Leblanc listens to the underwater ‘ice voices’ during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.

Sensing the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023
Close-up of four ice sculptures at the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023

Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.

By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.

Sending the nonhuman voice: Showing a close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant, held at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec, from 24 February to 31 March 2023
Close-up of a visitor touching the braille text from recent IPCC reports during the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photograph: Joan Sullivan © 2023.

Bringing back the nonhuman voice

Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.

The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:

“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”

I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.

This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.

A beauty filled with dread 

Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.

Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023

I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.

Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.

Images 1-9: Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023. Click images for full size.

This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…

But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.

A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Images 10-13 from the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photographs: Joan Sullivan © 2023. 10 A partial view of the installation, made up of eight triangular abstract photo sculptures representing the disappearing ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. 11 A visitor touches the braille text on one of the eight photographic ice sculptures. 12 A group from the Gaspesie chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps visits the installation. 13 Gaëtan Banville, who is blind and a member of the Lower Saint Lawrence chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps, reads the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto the eight photographic ice sculptures. Click images for full size.

The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.

Showing a publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d'artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.
A publicity poster for the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec.

I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.


Find out more

‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts. 

Les artistes remercient le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien financier, et tous ses partneraires pour l’appui précieux : Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Centre VU, Engramme et La Chambre Blanche. / The artists thank the Canada Council for the Arts for its financial support, and all its partners for their valuable support: Center d’artistes Vaste et Vague, Center VU, Engramme and La Chambre Blanche.

Le Devoir, Quebec’s largest independent French-language newspaper, published Faire parler les glaces pour montrer que le climat s’effrite, a review of ‘La voix des glaces’, in February 2023. The Vie des arts magazine article that described Joan’s abstract images as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (“of a beauty filled with dread”) is Un vent du fleuve : expositions au Centre d’art de Kamouraska (A wind from the river: exhibitions at the Kamouraska Art Center: 19th September 2020).

You can see more of Joan’s series ‘Je suis fleuve’/’Becoming River’ and ‘If I were a tree’ at her website. 

You can read Joan’s previous ClimateCultures post, Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, a joint review of After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022).

The 2019-20 Black Summer in Australia was covered by Reuters in Australia, scarred by bushfires, on high alert for dangerous summer (19th September 2023) and by the Guardian in The black summer bushfires killed 3 billion animals. They are our relatives; they deserve to be mourned (31st March 2023).

Amy Brady interviewed Amitav Ghosh for the Chicago Review of Books: The Uncanniness of Climate Change (18th September 2019). Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable was published by University of Chicago Books.

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A photographer, writer and farmer who focuses on climate change and whose abstract, phenomenological approach to photography expresses her ecoanxiety and gives voice to the nonhuman.

Walking With the Word ‘Justice’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


It was during an online Creative Environments workshop from the University of Bristol last September, led by Dr Paul Merchant, that I first came across his work with the Centre for Environmental Humanities there, and he mentioned the idea of looking at keywords associated with the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. Later, he brought together a group of interested people inside and beyond the university for an informal exploration and we offered to support the idea of a project. We quickly settled on a short investigation into three words that have complex meanings and usages in different disciplines and contexts and where there is an ever-present risk of groups talking past each other as we grapple with the urgencies and nuances of our climate and biodiversity predicaments. 

Paul and facilitator Anna Haydock-Wilson devised a series of workshops and, while I can’t be at the workshops myself, we agreed I should follow up each one with short discussions — by email or Zoom — with the researchers, community group members and creative practitioners who take part. My aim is to explore their insights from the events and their experiences of the different keywords.

As such, this post is not an account or evaluation of the ‘Justice’ workshop or an ‘objective’ overview of that word and its meanings — even less, an attempt at a definition. I hope it’s a fair reflection of some of the things participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop. And that it offers one way in to further conversations on justice, how we talk about it, and its role in helping us navigate our climate and environmental futures. I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Fresh encounters

This group’s exploration of the word ‘Justice’ began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in the Easton area of Bristol. Participants — as local residents, community project workers and activists, writers and artists and researchers — met, shared ideas of justice and made personal notes as they walked, about what this means for them in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the local community centre to share their perspectives on the walk and their own work or involvement with the issues, and split into two groups for a role-playing game. In that session, each group made a ‘justice map’ of the local area to help bring their ideas into focus, before a final discussion together at the end.

Sharing the word 'Justice' - showing the workshop group on its local walk
Easton Walk & Talk
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

One of the community participants said of the session as a whole: “It was a great group of people, and I found it really interesting to have representatives from both academic and non-academic backgrounds in the same room and to hear about the different types of work people are doing linked to climate. I would love to find more ways to translate some of the research and work being done into projects we’re doing locally at a very grassroots level. I’m really glad these workshops have begun, and I think there’s a lot of work for us to be doing to make sure the spaces where words like justice are discussed are shaped by people who have traditionally been on the receiving end of injustice.”

Another said: “I really loved that there were people from very different backgrounds there — both cultural and from the work they did and the experiences they had, on all those fronts.”

A third person told me how: “It has motivated me and confirmed a value for what I do. It was good to have different perspectives in a room coming from different backgrounds or professions. I also really enjoyed the game Anna devised with the role-playing — thought that worked well.” 

One member of the group shared a couple of strong and, it seems to me, complementary memories from the introductory walk — of “the river Frome overflooding under a motorway bridge” and of “how easily conversation flowed with everybody.” Another explained how “I see the environment as a key factor to enable or disable people being exposed to it. On our walk, we had lots of opportunities to explore this and how this might contribute to environmental justice.” Someone else told me how in “an interesting conversation I remember … I noticed that much of her thoughts surrounded the ‘why’, which I felt was powerful.” 

As a prelude to shared conversation within the usual ‘workshop’ environment of a closed room — such as the community centre offered later on — a walk allows for a more open-ended mix of private thought, personal encounter with the local environs and chance conversations with different people one-to-one. In a way, it’s a little like an extended version of that experience when we first arrive at a venue for an event: the bumping into new people at the initial pre-conference tea or coffee, but with the added fuel of fresh air, new perspectives gained out-of-doors and the ever-changing location brought by physical movement. After all, we don’t normally expect to be walking around for a meeting.

The fact that the walk preceded the formal part of the workshop — was actually integral to its design — was clearly appreciated. For one participant, this spoke to a core aspect of our own nature. “Through being active and interacting with the world, particularly walking around, we have a chance to develop new neurons. And our brain, as with other parts of our body, is changing depending on the environment and our interactions. … The physical and the mental go hand in hand and the environment is crucial as it provides the stimulation you need, both on the physical and the mental side.” In this sense, our personal environment — and therefore our shared environment, as social animals — is embodied within us; the boundary between ourselves and the ‘external’ world, where our body stops and the world begins, is not fixed in the ways we commonly think.

“In fact, where our body starts is an interaction between our brain, our environment and our body and the way our senses work to define what is actually around us. We do this all the time. We have to combine what we see, what we hear, what we feel to be able to know what ‘belongs’ to an object, to us, to someone else.”

Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Here, then, justice starts to have a very direct relationship with personal experience and with being in and moving around a place. But — like an urban river — that relationship can be submerged, can sink out of our conscious mind until a new context brings it to our attention. As one person fed back to me: “The walk made me notice things which I sometimes take for granted, or you just accept them as they are. Like poor, not thought out architecture in this instance. The grotesque wheelchair access at the train station; the motorway. So if an area has been poorly designed, what are our rights to change anything? Things feel so set in stone sometimes, we don’t know we actually have a voice to change things.” Another pointed out how “We have this idea when we talk about disability or inclusiveness, this tendency to restrict it to someone in a wheelchair or who is blind. But that’s more or less it. Anybody else, with all the sensory variability that is out there and all the consequences that has, is not at all considered.” 

Our urban and others spaces can design in forms of injustice, as illustrated above: embedded in the ways we become accustomed to think about what should even be part of that design process. While this can be addressed through greater care in new design codes, attention will always be needed to what lies outside the efforts to improve these. You cannot code everything. Standards cannot capture all the ways that our dynamic natural environment and we as diverse humans interact. Like a river, the human and the more-than-human break out and exceed the boundaries and order we try to impose.

A testing ground for conversations

While in some places, some people and communities do find voice and agency — their own ways to make change happen — in too many places many cannot: “I considered the active involvement in a neighbourhood — guerilla gardening in a small patch close to the Bristol-Bath trainline — vs no involvement in the garden/play space square in a concreted-over sad excuse for a playground in a social housing complex.” This participant had spoken with another “about the will or capacity of people to do such things to a space outside their own house boundaries” — capacities that can be bound up with different, perhaps overlapping identities.

“We spoke about cultural differences, about new residents from other countries not wanting to stand out, or draw attention to themselves. I have noticed behaviours before with poor recycling rates, with the problem being the visible bins — where residents did not want their neighbours to see what they consume. There is a social status which needs to be upheld. This is the same for people participating in the flea market as traders of second-hand goods. New residents i.e. first-generation arrivals from other countries, need to prove themselves to others from their own cultures that they are being successful.”

Someone else shared how in the group session another member of the group had “mentioned the word justice terrifies some people. It never occurred to me to think that, but made me make the connexion with my fear of the police. I will be very careful to define what it means to me when engaging in conversation with others. From now on I will make sure that when I talk, ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A point echoed by another person, who said to me: “It was really useful to connect the word and concept of justice as a focus to the environment. It anchored the importance of the issues for me.”   

The word 'Justice' - showing a flooded road under a local bridge
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Another comment gets to the heart of the matter, sharing how in their work with local communities: “a common theme that has come up when speaking with people is how disempowering the language used around climate can be and the negative impact it can have on people feeling that they don’t belong in ‘green’ spaces. Based on that feedback, I’d been thinking about ways we could start working together within our community to build more shared understanding of what the words often used in climate action and decision-making mean, so that more people can use them and the power they hold. When Paul got in touch about the workshop on justice, I was keen to get involved, seeing it as something of a testing ground of how we might begin having these conversations.”

I was sent a link to locally-led research demonstrating how resilient blue spaces are connected to higher quality of life, from which this participant concluded: “so the quality of more greenery around rivers, which we consider good for our wellbeing, would be rather seen in spaces with less deprivation. The justice of the river itself — so majestic round Snuff Mills [a park in the Stapleton area of north Bristol], and in flood it is a powerful beast — to then be turned into a drainpipe and hidden away under concrete for the last bits of its journey into the city. … You feel differently as you follow the river, depending on where it is.”

This also starts to point me to a wider or expanded sense of justice. If environment, body and mind are in relationship within and around each of us and ‘social justice’ contains something of that relationship then — just as where our body ends and the world starts is less fixed than we suppose — justice must encompass something of the wider natural world as well as ‘society’. Something in that phrase, ‘The justice of the river itself’ — a river that has its own life in itself, a powerful beast, and yet is forced into concrete, underground, away from us — speaks to injustice on a more-than-human scale.

Seeing the word 'Justice' - showing a local window with a poster, 'Stop fly-tipping'
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

A noun, a verb? In a word, Justice

When asked how they felt about the word ‘Justice’ now, whether this was different since the workshop, one participant said “It feels a lot closer to the bone,” while I’ve already quoted another: “From now on I will make sure that when I talk ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A third person shared that “I would say that justice used in this climate conversation felt very complex. Already all intertwined, decision-making done with consideration to every living being and their livelihoods is ‘Justice’.”

A further response suggests that a process such as this walk-and-workshop itself is an enactment of what we are seeking: “That’s for me ‘justice’: the listening, the learning and the working together.” And what flows from that might be something that retains a diversity, that “we would start to think of whether we can develop what we call almost a shared mental model … where we know which angle we are coming from but we have an understanding of where they might all fit together. And then instead of having a fixed outcome, rather think of it as a theory of change; how can we change these things and move together to something that is more just, more resilient?”

To appreciate the ‘angle we are coming from’ and how others’ paths intersect, converge, overlap our own, is an expansion of our own map, our mental model, into something larger and shared, although always incomplete. Two conversations gave me different impressions of an area I’ve never visited but can imagine from my encounters with other places I’ve lived or worked. Different but, importantly, not necessarily conflicting — and both speaking of injustice.

One was an email where a few lines provided almost a prose poem: “the trainline with lots of freight trains, high pollution in a local neighbourhood; the architecture at the train station; graffiti and street art; River Frome, DIY skatepark; the lack of green in neighbourhoods, pocket parks; then finally the council estate with a concreted over play park. Had a few trees, but I was surprised and shocked actually at such a loss of opportunity.” 

The other came during a Zoom call, reflecting on the same scene as “On one hand a very sad space but on the other almost an amazing space, when you think about the way the youth make it their own. The dumped sofas, the building rubbish and rubble and whatever, integrated as obstacles into the skatepark; the graffiti going over them as if they are becoming part of the landscape; the ceiling of the M32 with an enormous graffiti, it’s the skeleton of an animal, which brings in almost the life and the change of all these things. The River Frome then going over its edges, going onto the car park, where it can come out and starts to become a river again. So all that is to see how nevertheless life takes over. The walk to the train station there, the little path where the flowers break out to try to get their own space. That’s actually really nice. And I think that by gentrifying that area that community would lose a lot. That’s where justice comes in again: how do you approach such things without destroying what the community creates to survive? That was one of the things where I hadn’t appreciated just how much they’re making that space liveable for them and useable.”

I also saw something of this possibly creative tension between different ways of living in, of seeing, the same ‘environment’ in what another person shared as one of their strongest memories of the event: “the feeling that some areas, particularly those with lots of graffiti, gave a harsh feeling to the area. As graffiti is a huge part of Bristol’s character it’s not a question about removing it but more about offsetting it in the areas it’s the most prominent by revitalising playgrounds and greenspaces.”

Fencing in the word Justice: showing a graffiti area behind a barrier
Photograph by a workshop participant © 2022

Maybe a vision of justice might be something fluid, able to move with people and environment and the others we share it with. And part of that flow might be to recognise not just that justice must include the many and the diversity that we are and share, but the seemingly conflicting forms and appreciations of what is ‘good’.

What does the word ‘Justice’ mean to you?


Find out more

See below for comments on this post – and contribute your own to be part of the conversation!

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

You can find out more at our new Environmental Keywords section, including the suggestion to explore an ‘undisciplined glossary of our three keywords: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.

Queer River and Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place

Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.


3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.

It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.

Cover of Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs

Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:

“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”

Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.

Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.

Ecologies of place: showing Queer River - Boat and Body, an art work by James Aldridge
Queer River – Boat and Body. Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.

In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”

For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.

One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.

So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.

Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.

Disciplinary agnosticism, Geopoetics & queer perspectives

One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.

The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”

At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.

Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.

Ecologies of place: showing Vale of Pewsey walking pages, an art work by James Aldridge
Vale of Pewsey Walking Pages
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.

Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”

In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.

In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:

“Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.”

If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.

As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:

“My experience of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.”

I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.

Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies

When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.

Ecologies of place: showing Mapping Connections, an art work by James Aldridge
Mapping Connections – Drawing with Alder Cone Ink
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?

Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.

On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.

Ecologies of place: showing collaborators on the Queer River, Wet Land project
Queer River Wet Land collaborators, Glasgow: Minty Donald, Cecilia Tortajada, Ingrid Shearer and Rachel Clive
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.

They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”

Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?

“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.”
— Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.

After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.

As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.

In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.

Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place

I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.

As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.

Queer River, Wet Land – Glasgow
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:

“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.”
— Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“
— David Bohm, On Dialogue.

Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.


Find out more

The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021); you can preview the introduction and several of the book’s chapters at their site. Iain has written about his motivations for co-authoring the book, with a brief outline of the chapters, in his ClimateCultures post, Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place. You can also read recent posts on his own blog, such as After Disciplinarity? Mutual accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency, where he shares the text of a talk he gave to Breaking Boundaries, a postgraduate student conference at Cardiff University. 

Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.

In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.

James mentions his exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, and you can read more about his approach in Slowing Down, Going Deeper on his blog. James is an Associate Artist with Climate Museum UK which was founded by independent researcher and creative Bridget McKenzie.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

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

Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature

Ecopoet Helen Moore shares the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in a world that’s become unconscious of humanity’s interdependence with all beings through the web of life.


1,900 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Recently I’ve begun to contemplate and explain what I mean by ‘wild writing’, which is such a fundamental part of my ecopoetic practice. I want to share how I go about it and how it keeps me well and resilient to the deep challenges of staying conscious in a world that is consistently leading humans to remain unconscious. In reflecting on my many years practising it, I’ve come to see how it helps me to get in touch with what I call my ‘humanimal’ nature — the embodied awareness that recognises my interdependence with all beings through the web of life. And ultimately puts me in touch with the Divine within myself and all beings.

A subtle imprint

Showing Wild Garlic by Helen Moore: inspiring wild writing
Wild Garlic
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

Not all ecopoetry is wild writing, and it can of course also be expressed in prose. But the following piece is inspired by foraging for one of my favourite foods, Wild Garlic, also known as Ramsons. It also expresses the phenomenon that I’ve come to name ‘green drift’, which is the subtle imprint that time in green spaces — whether foraging, gardening, walking or meditating — can endow us with.

Green Drift

“There is no force in the world but love.” – Rilke

Crawling into bed like a peasant,
with mud-grained feet, soil under the nails
of my toes – but too tired to care –
the heaviness of the day’s exertions draws

my body downward – each muscle and bone
finding its bliss – and I close my eyes
on a green panorama, shades of every
nuance, the contours of leaves in high

definition. A film encoded on the visual cortex,
I observe again those lanceolate shapes, the forage silk
which slipped between our fingers and thumbs
(still redolent with that Ramson scent),

the mounding herbage that we plucked, 
backs bent as in a Van Gogh study.
Behind my eyelids, vernal waves rise and fall,
hymn of this community to which my senses flock –

ancient rite of magnetic birds, Dionysus riding me,
greens rushing on the inside of my eyelids, 
mosaics of foliage, fingers ablaze with Nettle stings,
soles still alive to the narrow woodland path,

its vertebrae of roots, pad of compressed earth.
High on Spring, I’m a biophile 
and incurable; nor would I care for any cure –
would only be a node in Great Mother’s body

where, drifting into the canopy of sleep, I see foliar veins 
close-up – illumined as if by angels – 
feel the breathing of stomata. Then, like a drunken Bee,
I surrender to this divine inebriation.

From Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, Helen Moore (Shearsman Books, 2012).

Helen adds: "Names of more-than-human beings are capitalised to raise their status from the margins to which industrialised culture has relegated them."

The wild is everywhere

That erotic/ecstatic possession by wild Nature and the resulting dissolution of the ego, as I connect with my higher Self, which is an expression of the Divine, is the ultimate state to which my wild writing practice can bring me. In this state I feel in every cell of my body that I too am wild Nature, and that I’m powerful beyond measure. That I too can co-create with all life.

Given that this practice emerges from the wilder aspects of my consciousness, how do I go about accessing this extraordinary state of mind? Fundamentally it requires carving out regular space in my schedule to get away from the digital/virtual world. To take solo time in Nature. To nourish body/mind/spirit and deepen my connection with other-than-human Nature from which inspiration and creativity flow. I don’t necessarily need to seek out places that might typically be defined as ‘wild’. The wild is everywhere, occurs even in our local park/garden/school playing fields/cracks in the pavement.

Nevertheless, as Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth, the ordinary, conditioned mind is more comfortable in green spaces such as a landscaped park “because it has been planned through thought”. Whereas “in the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.” Here we can no longer differentiate between “life (good) and death (bad) … since everywhere new life grows out of rotting and decaying matter.” Stilling the mind, we can then start to perceive “sacredness, a hidden order in which everything has its perfect place, and our own non-separation from this.”

Showing Great Mullein, by Helen Moore - co-creation and wild writing
Great Mullein
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

My wild writing practice is also about holding an intention: what does life want to show me today? In approaching it this way, I find that I tend to experience magical encounters that lift my spirits, bring joy, inspire. Going out on a wild writing adventure, I find it’s important to see the time I give it as ‘sacred’. It’s a period of time, two, three, four hours perhaps, for nurturing soul and the ensouled world. Ideally, I will cross a threshold (which might be a garden or park gate, a path to a beach or forest) in order to mark the transition into it. And having entered into this space, I will avoid conversations with other humans and open up my senses to the other-than-human world.

I never start with writing, just begin by walking, slowing my pace, letting any mental chatter subside. I let my body soften, my senses receive information such as the breeze on my skin, scents in the air, taste, sounds near and far, and visual aspects such as colours, shapes, patterns. At the same time, I watch what is at the edge of my consciousness, breathing it in and out, honouring any uncomfortable feelings, breathing them in and out. I avoid getting attached to any of those thoughts, or letting myself build them into narratives, and instead keep returning my attention to the present moment.

I also practise the Five Ways of Knowing, which Bill Plotkin advocates in Soulcraft. These are sensing (with all five senses), feeling, intuiting, imagining and thinking. Valuing these additional ways of knowing helps to balance out the dominant rational mind and allows me to become more receptive to the multiple wild voices and natural sign languages that are usually so ignored in our culture.

And I connect with the elements, the weather, darkness/light, rhythms of growth, abundance and decay, and notice what these may mirror within. Observing dead wood riddled with insect holes and fungus, I may see what needs to fall away from my life, what needs to be composted, as I deepen my understanding of impermanence.

Wild writing & co-creative nature

Through these acts of paying close attention, and then finding language, imagery and form to reflect my experiences, I’m engaging in wild writing. However, that process of finding language is often tentative, provisional. My experiences may be difficult to communicate, and so at first I’m simply ‘splurging’, forgetting grammar, spelling, punctuation. Just getting words down in my notebook. Sometimes the seed of a poem or story is found later in just a few words of that splurge, a phrase that has a certain ‘energy’ that I want to explore further.

Wild writing fundamentally requires me to practise non-judgement — at least in the initial phase, when I allow everything in. Later I can practise the discernment of the editorial eye, but initially I try to be open to including all of my experience, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. To keep including in my awareness the co-creative aspect of what I’m doing.

In our culture we’re conditioned to think of the act of creation as happening almost in a vacuum. We’ve come to think of the creative ‘genius’ working in isolation — traditionally a white, male figure, possibly inspired by a female muse. However, everything happens as a co-creation in Nature. A tree does not grow on its own, but responds to light, soil, water, weather, insects. It interacts with other trees through mycorrhizal relationships. Trees are also home to birds, creatures, insects, all of whom may have a symbiotic relationship with the tree. A bird might find its home in the tree’s branches, eat its berries, benefitting from this food source, and then pooping out the seeds, thereby disseminating them.

Showing Clouded Yellow, by Helen Moore
Clouded Yellow
Photograph: Helen Moore © 2021

This shows that co-creation is at the heart of all experience. All beings are infinitely connected through the web of life, the ecosystems and communities we inhabit. Our co-creation as humans is with other writers and teachers who inspire us, and with the other-than-human as an interspecies experience. It may also involve consciously working with the Universe, the Divine, Spirit, Oneness, God, Allah — however we may call it.

This co-creation can come about through inspiration, and of course the word ‘inspire’ connects us with the breath, the air we share with all beings. It is the insights, ideas, sudden intuitions which we ‘breathe in’. And which we then ‘breathe into’ others when we inspire them.

In my experience, regularly practising wild writing helps me to remain more attuned to my wild self, even when I return to the more domesticated realm of home, cafes, library, bars, shops. Steadily becoming more capable of expressing this essential aspect of myself seems to build my resilience to face the challenges of being human in the 21st century, to embrace the crises we face as opportunities for greater healing and positive transformation of our world. It also helps me to understand that I’m never alone — even if I’m experiencing social isolation, wild beings are wonderful companions and teachers.

Helen Moore at Timber Festival, July 2021
Photograph: Mark Simmons © 2021

Find out more

Helen’s post is based on a Zoom talk she gave recently to Bristol Climate Writers, an active group that writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry about climate change and the environment, and which includes many other ClimateCultures members. You can find out more about the group’s work through two posts BCW members wrote for ClimateCultures: Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’, and Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change.

Helen’s collection Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (2012), is published by Shearsman BooksAnd ECOZOA (2015), which is published by Permanent Publications, has been acclaimed by Australian poet John Kinsella, as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics”. On Helen’s website, via her ClimateCultures profile, you can listen to readings of her poem Findhorn Bay, Waves of Flow & Flight, watch her poetry films, explore her collections, and find out about her online Wild Ways to Writing mentoring programme and her current project collaborating on a cross arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.

Helen is one of the judges for Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, a new writing competition from XR Wordsmiths, a collective of writers deeply concerned with the climate and ecological emergency facing us all and part of Extinction Rebellion. The competition aims “to use our collective imagination as a tool against the climate and ecological emergency. Imagination unlocks the impossible and releases it into the realm of ‘possible’.” It is open now until 14th September 2021 — and our next ClimateCultures blog post will explore the thinking behind it from the perspective of one of our newest members, also a member of XR Wordsmiths.

Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth (2009) is published by Penguin.

Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (2003) is published by New World Library

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.

Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.