Beneath What Is Visible, A Vast Shadow

Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker uses an innovative take on the camera obscura to uncover visible and invisible networks and complex histories embedded in a Scottish peninsula whose water-and-landscape is home to nuclear arsenals, peace activists and pilgrims’ spiritual traditions.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


Last November, I joined other artists presenting work as part of Planetary Processing, a gathering for whom photography is a mode of speculation on geological, celestial and bodily systems. I showed prints and text from my latest project, Trinity.

I created this body of work during residencies at Cove Park arts centre in Scotland, where I could engage with the unique ecology of the Rosneath peninsula: the landscape itself, the networks visible and invisible that have been imposed upon it and the complex histories embedded in its fabric.

Beneath land and water

The peninsula is dominated by the presence of HMNB Faslane and RNAD Coulport, the home of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Existing alongside these sprawling sites are the small, temporary constructions of itinerant activists — locations such as the Peace Wood bear traces of their occupation.

Trinity references the early Christian pilgrims that voyaged to remote corners of the British Isles, such as Rosneath, in search of sanctuary; peregrini who sought to use the elemental power of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment. However, it also alludes to the contemporary use of the land — promised into the service of conflict, boundaries delineated upon the surface that pay no heed to its deep geological history.

I made these images using my own ‘backpack obscura’ — a custom-built camera obscura designed to allow me to capture large format images in remote locations. A light-tight tent, it uses rudimentary materials and a simple meniscus lens to project the desired image onto the floor of the camera. As well as being my means of image making, it also served as my shelter from the elements.

After two extended stays on the peninsula I felt I had enough material to begin the editing process. However, I soon realised that conveying the depth and breadth of what I had experienced was going to be difficult using image alone. The idea of creating a publication seemed the perfect solution as a means of expanding and extending upon my work. I feel the combination of critical and creative texts really help to locate the imagery whilst also providing a platform from which the reader can access the project.

Image shows cover design of Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Design by Loose Joints.
Trinity, by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019

What follows, with some of the images I took, are edited extracts from the two texts that have been provided for the book: Not Negative, an essay by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Trinity, writer Nick Hunt’s creative memoir of his stay in 2002 at the peace camp near to the naval base that’s home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent of three Vanguard-class submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads, where he engaged in several direct actions against the base.

Not negative

an edited extract of an essay by Martin Barnes

Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light. Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light-sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.

Photographer by Oliver Raymond-Barker
Photographer: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channelled onto a light-sensitive surface.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white groundsheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.

Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of homemade structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …

Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and storytelling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half-remembered dream.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Trinity

an edited extract of an essay by Nick Hunt

He approaches from the south, a small man in a ragged robe. He comes carefully through these woods. There is no razor wire. Sunlight and shadows slide off him, spiderwebs break silently. The skeletons of dead leaves cling to his rough hair.

Behind him is the Irish Sea, cold and grey, with white-capped waves. On the rocky shoreline lies an abandoned coracle. Crabs have made their homes in it. Its willow ribs press on its skin. He will not need it now, for there is no return.

He traces the long line of the loch, stitching himself into the land. Around him is an interweave of oak and ash and pine. He picks his way through tangled thorn. There is no smooth road. Beyond the trees a wet wind blows over open water.

It rises up from deep below. Its shoulder breaks the surface. Water thunders from its flank. The daylight makes it gleam. For long months it has been submerged in darkness and in secrecy, nursing its destructiveness. It has seen the bottom of the world, the undersides of ice floes. Now its weight is buoyancy. It surfaces to claim the air.

Beneath what is visible is a vast shadow.

The call goes up just after dawn. I stumble from my tent. People are staggering around, pulling off their sleep-warm clothes. I spill coffee on myself. Someone blows a trumpet. The loch is hidden by the trees and I can’t see what the others have seen. There is something I’ve agreed to do in this eventuality but I do not know what it is. My brain is still stunned with sleep. Then I know again.

People are running to the loch. I follow without shoes. We leave the camp, cross the road and stand upon the lapping shore. There are no police around. There is no time to think. From the wet heap at my feet I select a thick black skin and drag my legs into it, heave it over my chest and arms, being flayed in reverse. It is clammy, tight and cold. Its smell is like an old tomb. We wade into icy water clad in neoprene.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He passes dwellings in the trees. Bivouacs and benders. Turf-roofed huts and tents. The camps of charcoal burners. Through the smoke he glimpses them, the gentle outcasts of these woods. Those who fled from villages. Those who are misshapen. He sees them gathered by their fires telling stories, singing songs. He blesses them as he walks by. They do not notice him.

Behind him are the gilded robes that he shed for plain sackcloth. His hand exchanged a crosier for a staff of blackthorn.

These woodlands end against the shore and he walks the pebble beach, the wind harsh upon his skin, following the undulating highlands with his eye. A seabird turns in the air. There is a stink of wrack. He could build a chapel here but something tells him to walk on, away from the long water with its access to the sea. He does not trust those depths. That shadow in the water.

The grey waves part on either side of its gliding topmost fin and join again behind, leaving no trace of its passing. It monstrous mass keeps pace below. Seabirds keep their distance. As it slides towards its home it scans the confines of this sound, reading depths and distances, alert to any obstacle. Its brutal, sleek intelligence seems evolved and not designed.

In its wake, a flying machine hangs and buzzes watchfully.

There were glaciers here once that tore strips from the land. Then the sea flooded in. It travels in their absence.

The first steps into coldness hurt, the next ones not so much. The water grips my legs, my thighs, my chest. I start to paddle. At first we cluster in a bunch but soon the swimmers scatter out. Spectators gather on the shore, shouting exhortations.

The low horizon of the hills goes up and down beyond the waves. Small waves slap against my mouth. I concentrate on breathing. The water feels very dense, made sluggish by the cold. This is not my element. The distance feels hopeless.

Far out, a noisy helicopter turns slow circles in the sky. It must be half a mile away. Below it I can see the shape of something great and dark.

Photographby Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He wanders enraptured, ruptured. The sunlight breaks upon him. On the shore he falls to his knees with the immensity and stares upon the awesome light that floods the shadows of the world. The god of love is everywhere. It is all a marvel. He closes his dazzled eyes and the world appears in negative, the black sky and the white trees, the incandescent veins of leaves, the bleached water opening to some great revelation. A vision flashes in his mind of blank structures on the shore, hard-edged and unknowable, working to some vast and terrible design. The revelation fills him but he cannot understand it. When he opens his eyes again, everything is as it is. The trees, the stones, the small waves are fixed in their positions.

It registers nothing of these things. Nothing penetrates. Its mind, if it has a mind, is as blank as a stone. It has almost reached its home. Its velocity starts to slow.

We doggy-paddle, thankful but defeated, back towards the land. As I focus on the shore I see a man stooping there. Water flows from his cupped hands. He gazes somehow through me. I think about solid ground, warm clothes, a welcome fire. When I look again he is no longer there.

Note from Nick Hunt inside Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019.

Find out more

Planetary Processing took the form of a six-month artist-led peer forum, funded by Artquest and hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. 

A fully designed mock-up of Oliver’s photobook, Trinity, was shortlisted in the 2019 Kassel Dummy Award. “This year we again invited all photographers worldwide to take part and to send us their unpublished photobook mock-up. In total, 362 photobooks from 37 countries from all over the world were sent in.” The book will travel around the world for the next six months for various exhibitions.

The book is designed by Loose Joints: “For this sprawling publication we used an interplay of papers, sizes and colours to re-structure Barker’s immersive images, which are made using a backpack-mounted camera obscura to make and print photographs in situ. The result is a swirling mixture of tones and sensations…”

In his essay, Martin Barnes says, “There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye-opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood … Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location … by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’. … His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force.”

Nick Hunt (a fellow ClimateCultures Member) adds in a note to his piece that “St. Modan, the son of an Irish chieftain, renounced his position as an abbot to live as a hermit in the 6th century. His relics are kept at Rosneath Church on the shore of Gare Loch.”

The full texts of Martin’s and Nick’s pieces, Not Negative and Trinity respectively, are available at Oliver’s website. Oliver’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone, explores his encounter — on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry — with a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.

In his essay, Martin Barnes refers to the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, the account of that hero’s encounters with the monster Grendel, who terrorised humanity from his lair beneath the shadowy mere. For a discussion on an alternative imagining of Grendel and Beowulf and the perilous meeting of worlds, see Bringing Our Monsters Back Home, my review of John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel

“Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth

Small Earth - art, land and sky at Snape Photograph by James Murray-White 2018Filmmaker James Murray-White describes taking part in the Small Earth conference within the stunning beauty of Snape. At this special event, psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes 


“Get the tools you need to understand where we’re currently living: in the belly of the beast.”

– Alastair McIntosh

The starting question for this powerful converging and sharing of minds in the wonderful location of Snape was “Can we return to living within the terms of Earth’s ecosphere?” And this question was minutely probed and dissected over an intense, sometimes gruelling, sometimes uplifting and ultimately rejuvenating four days. The choice of location was sublime: a place I know well and often regret I don’t spend enough time in — a place of water, reed beds, and the wonderful vast skies with multiple colour gradations to dream within; absolutely a setting to contemplate the miracle of our time on the blue dot of our earth.

Small Earth, big skies at Snape. Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Small Earth, big skies at Snape. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

A miracle indeed, but a miracle that our human species has been bent on destroying — and this convergence was aimed at therapists and psychologists with a passion to serve the planet through their work.

Here was a chance to listen, to talk and share, and also to grieve for the pain of the world.

Reclaiming what gives life 

To start each day, psychotherapist James Barratt offered us all the opportunity to share into a social dreaming matrix: a space to hear and reflect upon each others’ dreams. It feels particularly useful when a group has come together for a few days and is going through a process together, on any level. I found this powerful group process took us very deeply into our collective unconscious, and it was a strong learning to hear dreams and then have the chance to collectively unpick what they might be saying: finding threads and applying our experience to them. 

As one of the few non-therapists attending, I dipped deeply in and needed some time to dip out. I found that it touched into lots of the work I’ve done since an MSc in Human Ecology at the (sadly now defunct) Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh some years back, and it was an honour to connect again with Gaelic shaman of the CHE and other institutions, Dr Alastair McIntosh — a keynote speaker.

McIntosh’s lecture on Saturday, Reclaiming what gives life, was full of his pain and passion for the human community: quoting psalms, Shakespeare, Gaelic poets; taking us with him on his journey across the island of Harris, and into the dark heart of the world of advertising, particularly the pernicious evil of the tobacco industry.

Drawing on his comments in the film Consumed, which opened the conference, he asked of us to call back the soul, by “looking at the nature of the belly of the beast”, that “the place of our calling is in the belly of the beast — don’t let it take us out of our natural joy.” The way forward is to “open up to that marginal realm where I suggest a healing will come.”

Small Earth, life abundant at Snape. Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Small earth, life abundant at Snape. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

A highlight of the conference was meeting with naturalist Chris Packham, who shared ways to achieve a different way of thinking about our place within the ecosphere. Ultimately, he said, if we truly tap into our human capacity for altruism, restraint and care, we might survive: “once we recognise that we are just a keystone in our own ecological microsystems.”

Following on from this in a public lecture to four hundred of us, and accompanied by his dog Scratchy, Packham laid it on the line for humanity: “Summon the bravery. Look at it cold hard and in the face. It is an ecological apocalypse. We must act now.”

Other notable speakers included Jungian analyst Andrew Fellows; researcher, writer and transformational coach Mick Collins; novelist Melissa Harrison; and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust.

Making the Transformocene

Andrew Fellows started by playing us a song of the Earth from a Siberian shaman: calling us into the Earth and reminding us of our belonging. Combining hard fact — that human activity is adding heat to the atmosphere at the rate of four Hiroshima explosions every second, and that two years ago the global human call for air-conditioning overtook our call for heating — with an analyst’s perspective, he said: “We hang (in this ecosphere) by a thin thread, and that thread is man’s psyche”. Fellows spoke passionately to our failings and our human frailties — preparing us perhaps for McIntosh’s attempts to lift us spiritually.

Mick Collins spoke to what he names the Transformocene: that age which transforms and changes within the recent and the new. This draws upon the very necessary shadow work that humanity must undertake, which Collins calls us “to do with depth.” Naming himself a ‘wounded transformer’, speaking with great passion and, as described in conversations afterwards, coming from a rich discursive life of facing inner crises and awakenings, he is emerging as an important figure in our movement for change.

I relished coming back to creativity with writer Melissa Harrison, whose conviction she says comes from being part of “the last generation that was able to play and be outside.” That reminded me of David Bond’s 2013 documentary Project Wild Thing, which uses the diminishing statistic, from his mother’s 80% spent outdoors, his own 50% outdoors playtime, to his inner-City kids’ mere 3%, as the starting place to advertise the joys of being outdoors within the world. I looked after a friend’s kids the night after returning from Small Earth and was shocked that they were up at 6 am, devouring screen time and off in distant virtual lands of warfare and commodity.

Melissa Harrison inspired too: “I can hold both hope and pain at the loss of species and changing climate, but it’s painful. Why not try to hold hope?” She suggested that we all adopt our own home patches to protect and to closely observe, if we are not already in this act of service: “this sense of responsibility implies that we are the main players in this. Keep it cared for and vibrant.”

Small Earth - art, land and sky at Snape Photograph by James Murray-White 2018
Art, land and sky at Snape Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Gaining a calm presence on small Earth

Mary-Jane Rust gave an exemplary presentation that, for me, rounded off the few days and was grounded in doing, reflection and practice. With examples of eco-psychotherapy projects that re-engage folk with the earth, she spoke of “attending to our rage” at what we see and hear in terms of destruction and change and, with this, “becoming aware of our own emotional centre we gain a calm.” That presence, she suggests, “delivers us the present moment, and enables an attitude of reverence, humility, and an apology — to the Earth”.

These talks were followed by a range of follow-up afternoon workshops. I particularly loved the chance to forage for leaves, sticks and objects outside, and return to put them all together within an art-making workshop facilitated by Marion Green.

And I appreciated the buildings and cultural-creative environment of the Maltings, coming back to life after the end of their industrial use. The stunning beauty of Snape: the reeds, absorbing CO2, the River Alde flowing up to the buildings, and the vast East Anglian sky, all reminded me that we live in a beautiful world. It’s up to each and every one of us to deeply engage, live a life in full service to the ecosphere, as well as to the human population and all other species that inhabit it too.

My thanks to the organisers, presenters, and fellow participants of Small Earth for this opportunityMay these few days enable us to continue to serve, and to quote Mick Collins, to live a life “in discipleship to nature, and to service.”


Find out more

The Small Earth conference took place at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, from 8th to 11th November 2018. It was organised by CONFER, an independent organisation established by psychotherapists in 1998 to provide innovative, challenging and inspiring continuing educational events for psychotherapists, psychologists and other mental health workers. You can find the full programme at their site.

Mick Collins’ idea of the Transformocene is explored in his book, The Visionary Spirit, and in this interview for Permaculture: “We’re living in a time when we’re standing at the threshold of the Anthropocene – an era where humans have had an impact on the Earth’s eco-systems. In this way, the Anthropocene reflects the Spirit of the Times (zeitgeist), which highlights the degrading ways we’ve been treating the planet. In contrast, the idea for the Transformocene Age came to me after reading Carl Jung’s Red Book, which chronicles his meetings with the Spirit of the Depths. Therefore, the emergence of the Transformocene is cultivated via a deeper connection to the wisdom from the collective unconscious and through our encounters with the sacred.”

In the Path of Its Beam

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.


approximate Reading Time: 11 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.”

'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' cover
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

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.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

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.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Artist: Anna Maria Johnson
Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

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.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6

Curator Veronica Sekules shares three Anthropocene objects that mark the movement from a visionary symbol of eternity, to the hubris of a transitory age and on to a time which will be witnessed by what endures after us.


approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes 


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Cosmic Man — among the elements

The first of my personal Anthropocene objects is Hildegard of Bingen’s image of Cosmic Man from her Book of Divine Works (1230 CE). It is a beautiful manuscript page, painted by her in reds, blues, white and gold, depicting a symbolic vision to convey some of the mysteries of Christian belief and devotion. It is full of complexity and for me equally prescient in the age of the Anthropocene as it was in the middle ages.

Anthropocene objects: The Cosmic Man - published in 'Liber Divinorum Operum', by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century)
The Cosmic Man – published in ‘Liber Divinorum Operum’, by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) Source: ‘Medieval Art’, by Veronica Sekules (OUP 2001)

At the centre is a naked man with arms outstretched among the elements, both demonstrating strength and vulnerability. He represents humankind equally dominating and subservient to the world. Around him, the concentric circles of the universe, moon, clouds, water, animals and creatures, are ultimately surrounded by God, who forms an extended flamelike humanoid figure encircling all, his face (and Christ’s) presiding over everything. Hildegard herself is shown seated, adoring and studious beneath this universe.

This represents a vision which is both humble and hubristic about both the power and subservience of human agency, placing man and god united in ultimate supremacy over the world and the creatures within it. For me this epitomises a major aspect of the genesis of the Anthropocene, and of its problems. Humans are both progenitors and victims, witnesses to the majesty of the world and yet main actors in its fate, good or bad. Even to a Christian believer like Hildegard, God’s flamelike presence seems to be double-edged, both guarding the universe and warning it.

Massey Ferguson TE20 — pioneering machine

The second of my Anthropocene objects is a Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor, marketed in Britain and indeed around the world in the 1950s, as part of a ‘New Elizabethan age’ of innovation in farming. It had over 60 different attachments and was a pioneering machine in the burgeoning oil-fuelled, carbon-consuming history of mechanisation, which was seen then to lead to greater wealth, power, profits and plenty for all.

Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors
Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors © 2018 http://bjtractors.co.uk/html/fergusonT20TED.html

Very rapidly, the TE20 was superseded by ever more powerful and giant machines for land management, crop spraying and harvesting, but it was one of the first signs of all the panoply of tools and chemicals which changed post-war farming and have accelerated the devastating effects of climate change and been so dangerous for nature. Farming is still seen, even increasingly, as a global agribusiness in an intensely greedy and competitive way, and machines to manage greater stretches of hedgeless land are still seen as its future. The Massey Ferguson was an icon of its time and has now been consigned to history — or indeed heritage, making appearances at vintage tractor events, but it would be good if its oil-age descendants could join it. I still hope and believe that alternative, equally innovative, but less polluting farming futures are possible.

Loch Hourn stone — witness to change

My third object is a stone. It looks like a piece of complicated layer cake. Some years ago, we were on a family holiday in Scotland, playing games in a wonderful rich geological landscape. On one loch beach, we each competed to find the ugliest stone, the silliest stone, the most deformed stone, the most regular stone, the most beautiful stone.

Loch Hourn stone
Loch Hourn stone
Photograph: Veronica Sekules © 2018

My 10 year-old son Jack’s stone won the prize as the most beautiful. It was the one we wanted to keep. So we put it in a really obvious place ready for when we returned, while we went round the bay to continue our walk. On our return, could we find it? It took two hours of painstaking, detailed, careful scrutiny. For, distinctive as it was, it blended perfectly back into its landscape.

Finally, in triumph, we found it and once again it seemed so obviously the best of stones. Subsequently, it has become a metaphor for us, both for beauty, and for ordinariness, for how something distinctive can blend into the norm.

It is now removed from its natural habitat, so it has become more of a heritage phenomenon. But equally, as a piece of metamorphic igneous rock and originally from deep inside the earth, it is witness to enormous change, to heaving movement of the planet more than 2,000 million years ago. It has endured long before human history, and the cousins of this stone remaining in the environment will continue to do so, imperceptibly changing, long after we have gone. So for me, as an object of the Anthropocene, it is all about a world which will outlive us, no matter what damage we effect.


Find out more

The life and work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), Benedictine abbess, visionary, preacher, writer, composer and Saint, is explored in this Wikipedia page, and there is an interesting article by Mary Sharratt on Huffington Post, 8 reasons why Hildegard of Bingen matters now.

If you‘d like to know more about the innovation of the Massey Ferguson TE20, Farm Machinery website has a short article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the tractor that changed the world of agriculture. And taking the longer view, an episode of the BBC World Service series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy discusses the impact of the Plough.

Among the wealth of stone-related materials you can find on the web (and the real things, outside your front door, on the beach, in the hills, fields or woods, and in town and city), BBC Radio 3’s The Essay recently broadcast Cornerstones, a series of five meditations on different stones around the UK from artists and researchers; and environmental humanist Jeffery Jerome Cohen has written Stone: an Ecology of the Inhuman (2015, Minnesota University Press). An excerpt — Geophilia, or the Love of Stone –is available at Continent.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

What Use is Grief to a Horse?

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, which explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of society’s dulling of the feeling of true passion, our relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


A copy of Equus goes to Ruth Garde for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

***

“One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The world keeps sending psychiatrist Martin Dysart customers: the children he’s come to see as being damaged by that world, it judges them as damaging to it. “One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”

Introducing Equus, Peter Shaffer mentions the risks in reproducing a written text. Not simply that the play obviously consists of so much more than the words: the gestures, the lighting and the ‘look of the thing’; but that the printed book “can imprison a play in one particular stylisation … Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.” Dysart seems to feel the same way about his own work: rendering the living spirit back into inoffensive flesh and bones.

A play that says more than once that “extremity is the point” begins with crisis. Magistrate Hester Salomon pleads with Dysart to take personal charge of a 17 year old boy who has committed a crime her colleagues want to punish him severely for.

DYSART: Why? What’s he done? Dosed some little girl’s Pepsi with Spanish Fly? What could possible throw your bench into two-hour convulsions?

HESTHER: He blinded six horses with a metal spike.

[A long pause.]

DYSART: Blinded?

Shaffer said that he’d been driving past a stables one day when a friend told him about just a crime, which he’d heard about at a dinner party. “He knew only one detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute – but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.” That real crime became the trigger for a play portraying a world which has so destroyed people’s ability to feel passion that it leads to incomprehensible acts. 

Alan’s distraught mother, Dora, resists any implication that the blinding was somehow the result of the boy’s upbringing, of society.

DORA: We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. My husband is a good man … He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy … No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself … If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all our things added up.

Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables where Alan worked at weekends, insists the boy was a model employee – right up to the sudden, vicious attacks. “No, he was bloody good. He’d spend hours with the horses cleaning and grooming them, way over the call of duty. I thought he was a real find.” This in spite of Alan’s one oddity; apparently, he never rode the horses, although that perk was the reason most stablehands took the job. Asked why Alan should be so different, Dalton replies: “Are you asking me? He’s a loony, isn’t he?”

Passion - Cover of Equus
Cover of Equus
Design: Dewynters; Photograph: Simon Turtle © 2005

The indispensable, murderous God

Hester wants Dysart to bring back the ‘normal’ boy within the tormented teenager. But the psychiatrist finds himself resisting more and more the call of the tame.

DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God.”

Dysart — middle-aged, working at a relentless conveyor belt rolling cases in through one door and out through another — is, of course, in the midst of his own existential crisis. Hester, horrified by his despairing self-awareness, tries constantly to coax him back into seeing the real benefits he delivers, every day, to the children he cares for. We begin to wonder who she thinks will be the saving of whom: Dysart of Alan Strang, troubled and troubling youth; or Alan of Martin Dysart, world-weary psychiatrist careering down into his own annihilation?

Dysart, however, is having none of it. He’s haunted by a dream that Alan’s arrival has triggered, and for which his own fascination with the ‘civilisation’ of Ancient Greece provides the setting.

DYSART: That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos … It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is … I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse … And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip.

Alan, meanwhile, is running rings round him, deflecting all attempts to uncover the dark reason for blinding the horses he’d cared for. The psychiatrist interviews Alan’s parents, picking apart their differences – class, temperament, religion. He wait, impassive at first as Alan bombards him with constant singing of adverts he’s learned from the forbidden TV, then angrily as the boy makes deep incisions of his own, with barbed comments about the doctor’s childless and sterile home-life.

Religion would seem to be at centre and bottom of Equus: Dysart’s fascination with the primitive rites of ancient Greece, his revulsion at the Normal deity of modern living; Dora Strang’s Christian faith and tutoring of her son against the wishes of her equally devout atheist husband. Gods exert their powerful pull as mortals continually recreate them.

But it’s passion that’s the real heart — buried and beating in in Alan, exposed and dying in Dysart. ‘Passion’ is ‘suffering’ — the Passion of Christ — but, derived originally from the Latin pati ‘to endure, undergo, experience’, later came also to mean ‘strong emotion, desire.’ Experience, suffering, desire — and all the animist, conventional and secular religious forms that evoke, console, contain, inhibit and incite these in their different ways. Alan has imbibed and rejected something of his mother’s religious faith and his father’s ‘rigorously self-improving’ one. And society’s consumerist religion is proselytised through the TV he’s supposedly banned from watching and reinforced by the customers at the electrical shop where he works during the week; selling brand names to satisfy the already well-equipped citizens of techno(theo)logical society.

Alan’s father preaches on TV’s corrosive effects:

FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life – like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. … Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don’t want, just to bolster up the economic system.

From all this, and from vivid if dreamlike childhood memories, Alan has created his own vital, ritualistic worship of his secret God, Equus: kneeling to the picture of a horse framed above his bed; slowly brushing the horses in the stables; secretly taking night-time rides on them. Riding is a worship to be offered raw and alone under the darkness of night, in unwatched fields of mists and nettles: human and animal both naked. Never in the genteel daytime rituals of ‘indulging in equitation’: animal harnessed, humiliated, un-natured; human civilised, ‘mastering’ nature.

At last, exhausted, he reveals his secret, miming for the psychiatrist how two beasts become one and ride out “against them all … My foes and His … The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe! … The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!”

DYSART: Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that… I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity … Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats … such a fantastic surrender to the primitive. And I use the word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ … I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!

Extremity’s the point

Passion as intimiacy? Still from the film adaptation, Equus
Still from the film adaptation, Equus
MGM Studios © 1977

Although Alan has abstracted his passion into a mystical vision of Horse-become-God as enthralling as the God-become-Man and Man-become-God visions of Christian and Industrial religions, what Dysart sees at its core is a primal relationship between human and more-than-human. Far-removed from “the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!” He dissects the inhuman condition we’ve inherited, become (de)naturalised into, and recreate with every Normal thought and action and speech. Dysart knows he cannot keep Alan free from it. It’s what Dysart also wishes to free himself from — and feels insanely jealous of the boy for succeeding, if only temporarily and at a terrible cost to human and animal. More terrible, though, than the ‘proper’ relationship of humans and animals?

DYSART: I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them — blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field … and give him Normal places for his ecstasy — multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he’ll never touch hide again!

Alan has confronted the world of fake reality and discovered his own sexual being at exactly the same time he realises the sexless world on offer in the desolating Normal of his parents’ lives, Dysart’s life and the lives of everyone he sees around him when the young woman he works with at the stables takes him on his first date, to “a skin flick over in Winchester! I’ve never seen one, have you? … All those heavy Swedes, panting at each other! What do you say?”

ALAN: The whole place was full of men. Jill was the only girl … All round me they were all looking. All the men — staring like they were in church. Like they were all a congregation.

Equus is a jealous God. Alan and Jill are discovered in the cinema by his father — revealed as a hypocritical consumer of what he’s brought his son up to beware. When Jill leads him away from the horrifying confrontation and takes him, inevitably, to the place they both know and can be alone together, she’s unaware that the stables are not just her secret place for sex but also his Holy of Holies. Naked with her, Alan sees his God watching through the eyes of the six horses. Equus sees all and punishes transgression, leaving Alan humiliated and, unable to act on his desire for Jill. Forcing her away, when Alan’s alone again with Equus, in despair he takes revenge on His all-seeing God’s earthly forms.

Shaffer’s intense fascination on hearing the brief, almost completely decontextualised account of the real-life horse-blinding was with a crime that “lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.” Meaning that we must all look for our own, incoherent, ones. But remember the one small detail that Shaffer did have: a crime his friend “had heard about recently at a dinner party in London.” More than likely a very ‘Normal’ dinner party, at which conversation, with the odd bit of spine-chilling news and thrilling gossip, took place over plates of animal flesh of one kind or another — although certainly not horse. 

A thousand local gods

Passion as worship? The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
Photograph: British Museum, Creative Commons licence
http://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages

Returned to the Normal world — where “animals are treated properly” in that way rather than blinded with their own hoof picks — once Dysart has delivered on his promise to “heal the rash on his body … erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes,” Alan “may even come to find sex funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! … Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

But, he tells the sleeping boy, “He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old nag … When Equus leaves — if he leaves at all — it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements.”

Dysart has confessed to Alan his own secret desire: to escape his work, his home.

ALAN: Where would you go?

DYSART: Somewhere.

ALAN: Secret?

DYSART: Yes. There’s a sea – a great sea – I love … It’s where the Gods used to bathe.

ALAN: What Gods?

DYSART: The old ones. Before they died.

ALAN: Gods don’t die.

DYSART: Yes, they do.

And earlier, when he told Hesther of his true passion for the world, his own form of worship, Dysart was offering it to us too. Knowing he’d never find it himself but warning us: try — find every way through, out of the Normal and into something more real.

DYSART: I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could … stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones like Zeus — no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs — just as of certain frowns and slouches … I’d say to them — ‘Worship as many as you can see — and more will appear!’

It’s a passion not for the abstract but the particular vision — of place, of person and of the more-than-human world: a renewed and habitual relationship with habitat.

DYSART: And of all the nonsensical things — I keep thinking of the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? Not to be a horse any longer? Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together — the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life – and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? … I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands — waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says [Mocking] ”Why? … Why Me? Why — ultimately — Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!”


Find out more

The script of the play is published by Scribner / Simon & Schuster (2005).

Questioning extremity? Space for creative thinking...  

"Extremity is the point," suggests Martin Dysart - in the world of Normal, where passion is flattened out, made safe, and industrialsed violence against animals (human and non-human) is hidden from sight. Freed from a need for any 'final, coherent explanation', what extremity might your creative practice bring to light?" 

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