On a Writer’s Imaginarium

Writer and artistbook maker Sarah Hymas reflects on an on- and offline cross-genre shared space she has created to support creative writing, and why this imaginarium is as much for her as for the other writers who join.


1,900 words: estimated reading time  = 7.5 minutes


Why is it we separate poets from writers, and writers from artists? Don’t we all make, create, draw our experience and ideas from the world into new forms? Aren’t we all inspired by each other, whatever the form or genre? Other people’s processes and imaginings offer new insights and routes into all my creative projects, however subtle or slow in emerging.

I don’t know how many years ago I saw Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I remember little about it bar the title and a sense of stepping into new wild worlds. Gilliam seems to be unrelenting in his creative vision, always pushing at the supposed bounds of reality. When I wanted a name to capture my ambition for a porous space of shared thinkingwritingdreaming, ‘imaginarium’ felt the perfect word. When I discovered that a toy shop chain and a special effects production company both used it for their names the idea was sealed.

The Imaginarium: an opening to possibility

When I ran the first series of A Writer’s Imaginarium I was actively thinking about how being very short-sighted, and not wearing glasses until I was six, affected my perceptual development, how I must have filled in so many gaps with guesswork. Not being able to see sharp edges meant my view of things was not contained. They weren’t contained. One of my reasons for writing, I think, is because I also felt I overspilled my physical self, and writing was and still is a placeholder for that excess. Imagination synthesizes all our senses. What we see we can also feel, hearing something we might visualise it.

Showing Sky photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Vital as it is in connecting our relationships with the world, in the here and now, our imagination opens us all, short-sighted or not, to possibility, for rewiring how we perceive or think or want to perceive relationships between things, including ourselves. A Writer’s Imaginarium began as a way to feed my own practice. Sharing what I was reading, thinking and excited by helped me develop my own writing. It has become a similar container for discussing favourite writings and thinkings which become new terrains for new projects.

I write poetry, fiction, site-specific audio walks, creative nonfiction and ecocritical theory, and make artistbooks with and without text. These have all fed my interest in how form contains text and how subject shapes form. In its six-year life the Imaginarium itself has taken on many forms: online, in-person, six-month programmes, one-day sessions, a week-long on- and offline intensive, a solo guidebook, a month-long forum-based version planned for August, and who-knows-what shapes will rise in the future.

They all seek to create a space of imaginative exploration, a collective thinking, where projects can roam, without a map or too much of a plan. The basic premise for anyone interested in joining is that they have a writing project they want to sit with, play with, improvise on and unpack in some way. It can be in any genre; and either a really sketchy idea or super developed. The workshops ideally incorporate a good mix of genres for cross-pollinating the ways we shape the worlds we write.

This cross-pollination is perhaps more evident in the longer programmes, where a buddy system pairs up people to share process or work or ideas or whatever they decide, between the sessions. Buddies are changed on a monthly basis to encourage everyone to connect with everyone else. It’s intended as a nourishing system for book recommendations, making progress in tandem with someone, and talking all things writing related with an equally passionate other.

We’ve had novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, essayists, digital writers, live artists, genre-hybridists and who-knows-whattists pass through the various Imaginariums. There’s a real mix of how much people actually write on any programme. Some write x words a month. Others treat it as a tool-gathering opportunity to play with various drafts that they go on to develop after the programme. Still others treat it as a hothouse in which to complete an entire thing over its duration. And writing this post I think why limit the process to writers? A visual artist, musician or dancer might want to play with words within or around their own practice. It’d be fascinating to envelop other artforms into a programme.

A shared holding space

The Imaginarium: a shared holding space. Showing cave photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Now more than ever it seems writers, publishing gatekeepers and all artforms appreciate that traditional notions of form or genre don’t necessarily serve the stories we need to write, read and share. We’re living in haphazard, uncertain and confusing times. As creative practitioners we essentially respond to that. A Writer’s Imaginarium is a holding space for unsafe and messy thinking, the sharing of ideas, processing how or what we write. So the discussion element of an Imaginarium is primary, which might rise from a reading or writing prompt. There’s never any pressure to read out. I don’t enjoy reading out the scrappy stuff freshly written in a workshop, and wouldn’t impose that upon anyone. I just want to chew around ideas, scribble some of them out, use other methodologies to my usual to find fresh ways into and through the terrain. Making up writing provocations is a joy — it allows me to unpack my own processes, map routes through passages I undertake spontaneously, and try new things out, before I suggest them to others. We need writers to experiment with new ways of perceiving the world, reworlding it through new and familiar forms, to keep our imaginations active, searching new pathways and bridges in the challenging times ahead.

The writing provocations in and out of the sessions are for people to try, taste and maybe return to or reject. Not everything works for everyone. One person described the six-month programme as being like “a curiosity shop … Full of hidden depths and surprises.” Some of those surprises might be more unpleasant than others. We can learn some interesting things through what makes us uncomfortable. Equally, we might not want to learn those things at that time. What’s for sure is that all prompts come from my love of visual arts, music, philosophy, the natural world, architecture, and on and on. An Imaginarium is not about producing a whole bunch of new work to present to others — although it can be if that’s what you and your buddy decide to do. It’s certainly about working out how you can best support a particular writing project. Who do you need to be reading, listening to or looking at? Where do you need to go for stimulation and nourishment? What habits will enable this particular project at this time?

Making the connections visible 

I offer a tutorial to everyone during or after the programme, so there is an opportunity for close discussion of writing. Of course I see feedback as important — as much for me as for the other. To read someone’s work closely enough to discuss it deeply is a connective and thought-provoking experience. It’s a sharing of creative preoccupations and a chance to unpack my current thinking that the writing in question prompts. How else do we come to read work if not through our own lived experiences and references?

I’ve been running writing workshops across my community for almost thirty years, for specific or more general groups of people, on loose themes or within particular projects, and I value how they make visible the connections we have with others (writers, humans, and all earthlings). The Imaginariums build on these sessions, and my work as a creative coach, to create new supportive networks for fictive, real, projected or speculative worldings.

Showing water photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Each Imaginarium rises from the belief we’re writing for a future reader (ourselves or another), and aims to bring together the company of others who want to catch those sparks. Imaginarium formats have been shaped by specific project methodologies and also go on to inspire new ones. Whichever way round they work, they keep my imagination plugged into an evolving and ever-growing circuitry that feeds my practice, encouraging a spreading of theoretical, linguistical and creative impulses that shape my ambition and enjoyment of my writing. I hope that works similarly for others.


Find out more

You can explore the Spirit of the Imaginarium and its current and future versions at Sarah’s website.

Writer Ursula Le Guin — whose The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction considers fiction as a container and has featured in previous ClimateCultures posts on ‘disciplinary agnosticism‘ and objects of the Anthropocene — said that “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination … The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.” And in Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves at her Brainpickings blog Maria Popova, says that “Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination.” And Popova adds that Le Guin said that this “self-invention … is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told.”

In Episode 5 of his Creativity podcast, writer John Fanning also picks up on the same essay as does Popova, and how Le Guin distinguishes between imagination and ‘mere’ creativity. He takes us back to the Romantics to suggest that imagination shapes our reality; indeed, for William Blake, imagination was reality, as he explained at age 20 to a patron who was dissatisfied with the ‘over imaginative’ illustrations Blake had created for his book: “I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.” As Fanning suggests, “Even the word itself, from the latin word, ‘imaginari’, asks us to question ourselves, because it means ‘to picture oneself’, to image oneself, to imagine oneself, which is perhaps a real understanding of creation, to investigate and picture from yourself, create from your images, your memories, your imagination, a visionary Blakean place where visions create mental concepts that are not actually tangible to the senses, but are there, present, nevertheless. Perhaps the best way to express all our creative world is the Imagination, just as the Romantics trusted…”

Sarah Hymas

Sarah Hymas

A poet, performer and artistbook maker focusing on the sea, its ecosystems and its interdependence with people, and the impacts of climate change and pollution.
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Conversations with Work That Connects

Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.


2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos


The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.

I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.

As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.

I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.

“Galvanising the faithful”

‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.

Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’

I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.

Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig
Photograph: Reed Ingram Weir © 2013

There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.

When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.

“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”

As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.

Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:

Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.

Breath[e]LESS – a blend of spoken word, soundscape, projection and dance music on environmental themes that Tessa Gordzjieko collaborated on.

“You learn as much as you teach”

We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.

As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.

The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul)
Photograph: Matt Law © 2020

Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.

Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:

“Ecology begins on your doorstep”

Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.

I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.

Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:

Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:

“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”

Showing the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.

“Our new brief”

So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.

Orlando after Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Andrea Carr © 2019

Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:

Creativity – “cultivating curiosity”
Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together”
Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity”
Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”

She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.

Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.

Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’

One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?

I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.

Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!


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Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist and activist in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit sector and combines arts and environmentalism.
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You can read about Julia’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play in her post Directing The Children.

Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!

Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.

Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.

Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
   

Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.

Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.

As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and  These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.

Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. 

The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty. 

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016) Donna Harraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

Joanna Macy is the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, a framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically. 

The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University. 

Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action. 

A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

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


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


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

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

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

A cosmology for sustainability

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

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

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

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

Adapting to a changing world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.


1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 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 aA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Necessary baggage

A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.

Showing a basket as a universal carrier
Universal carrier
Photograph: เอกลักษณ์ มะลิซ้อน  (Pixabay)

In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.

You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.

Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.

Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.

Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?

My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.

Perfect coffee pettiness

It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.

Showing coffee beans and cup - search for perfection
Perfect beans
Photograph: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.

Thus, coffee was born.

Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.

Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.

A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.

This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.

For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.

I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?

Search engine unconsciousness

We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.

Showing question marks in our search for truth
Search?
Photograph: Arek Socha (Pixabay).

There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.

Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.

These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.

Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.

It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.

In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.

For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.

It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.


Find out More

Ursula Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is published by Ignota Books (2019) with an introduction by Donna Haraway. And you can read this article from August 2019, where Siobhan Leddy argues convincingly that We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.

You can explore coffee’s mysterious origins in this 2010 piece for The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos. And dip your toes into the more accessible waters of the collective unconscious via the collective consciousness that is Wikipiedia. Searchenginehistory.com has this … history of search engines (from 1945 to just before tomorrow).

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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I Am Purpose

Writer Indigo Moon shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.


1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Indigo’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

 

universe and purpose, showing moon in the sky
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose

Hello.

We are the universe.

We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.

We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.

Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.

We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?

“Um.”

This is a rhetorical question.

“Oh.”

Digestion of a diseased animal.

Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.

What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.

Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.

We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —

“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.

That is for you to decide.

“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”

We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.

A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.

“Then what do you require?”

Nothing.

A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”

Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.

“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”

We admire your strength.

But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.

“Purpose?”

An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”

“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”

Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?

“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”

But you’re going to tell us, we presume?

“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”

You are wise, child.

Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”

Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.

“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”

As it should.

The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”

“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”

Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.

“I think I already know it.”

Then you have won.

***

signal and purpose - showing the sun above rooftop with aerial
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose — context

I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.

I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.

More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.

I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.

At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.

The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.

I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox?
Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.


Find out more

You can explore some of the issues around the origins of coronavirus diseases such as Covid-19 in human exploitation of animals in this report from the international NGO Traffic: Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response (April 2020).

From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus, by Carolyn Corman in the New Yorker (27th March 2020), looks at how such diseases are transmitted, and the latest research into understanding them.

And Transmission of diseases from humans to apes: why extra vigilance is now needed, by Arend de Haas at The Conversation (24th March 2020) explains how our great ape relatives are also vulnerable to coronavirus diseases — with the risk being transmission from humans.

You can find previous Signals from the Edge contributions in the form of a burning forest and the cry of a fox, and a fragment of an alien encyclopedia, cast backwards in time and in space.

Indigo Moon
Indigo Moon
An activist and writer specialising in environmental, LGBTQ+, animal and human rights, whose online platform uses creativity as a tool to influence and encourage positive change.
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