ClimateCultures welcomes new Member, poet and artist Salli Hipkiss. In the first of two posts, Salli reflects on how - through her work in Tanzania and a chance encounter with a key book - she came to understand the urgent challenges of climate change, on her decision to write a novel, The Riddle of the Trees, to support positive change, and her hopes for publication. Salli's follow up post will take the story further, with extracts from her book.
It all began in 1999 with ‘A Novel Idea’. Not the idea for a book, but a wonderful bookshop of the same name on a dusty peninsular of the East African town of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Living there as a teacher, a weekend treat was to head to ‘A Novel Idea’ where highly contemporary international new books appeared as if magically in a town where other correspondence from the rest of the world often failed to arrive. One particular Saturday a book found its way into my hands, as ‘just the right book’ seems to do from time to time. It was The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett.
I read it in a couple of power-rationing interrupted evenings (the irony was not lost on me) and came away knowing I had been introduced to possibly the most serious issue of our time, and one that would become a greater and greater problem and international focus over years to come. The issue in question was, of course, climate change. My immediate action was to apply for a new additional post at the school where I worked, aiming to become ‘Leader for the Environment’. I was given the post and for two years, in addition to my art teaching duties, I was the Environmental Education coordinator for the secondary school. Over this time I tried to introduce some of the urgency I had sensed through the book, including creating a whole school Environmental Charter.
A meaningful contribution
Jump to September 2006. I had left both Tanzania and full-time teaching in 2002 with the intention to retrain and hopefully carve out a new career in one of my other great passions: music, alongside my arts and sustainability commitments. I was living in Cambridge in the UK as a self-employed arts and sustainability practitioner and educator when An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas.
Having read The Carbon War I was very aware of Al Gore and his climate change advocacy work, but most people I knew at that time saw him solely as the former US presidential candidate. An Inconvenient Truth changed all that. I went to see the film three times at the cinema and bought the DVD for friends. My passion was renewed and I wondered once again how I could contribute meaningfully to the conversation around climate change and help to turn things around for the better.
Later that month an opportunity arose to travel to Sierra Leone to help with forest conservation education and my time there helped focus my thoughts. The idea began to form that my personal contribution to the climate change solution could be to write a book that inspired dialogue and change: after all, a book and a bookshop had been my introduction to the issue. Straight away I knew it would be a book for young people, and that the science would be put across through the medium of a magical story. I started to make notes and sketches and by the time I came back from Sierra Leone I had made a firm commitment to write the story.
The advice generally given to writers is to “write what you know”. Although my musical ambitions had suffered many setbacks, music remained a source of great joy and wisdom in my life, and as the idea to write a novel took shape I knew music would be one vital thread through the story. The imperative to help with the climate change challenge formed the other.
I began to read more widely about carbon sequestration and carbon trading and gradually the story began to take shape. It was to be set in a future when ‘carbon balance’ has been achieved through widespread reforestation. A new crisis would then emerge when a mysterious disease befalls one such forest and threatens the others, and therefore puts the carbon balance into peril and the threat of climate change looms again.
My deeper ecological message was to illustrate that in planning for widespread increased sequestration as one solution it is vital that we also keep sight of the need to protect biodiversity and that a healthy planet will only prevail if we seek health on all levels. The other deeper message was that this may only come about if we put aside our cultural differences and work together as one humanity.
The Riddle of the Trees
Characters appeared next: a lonely teenage girl, a shy teenage boy, a Forest Keeper grandfather who is too often absent due to his commitment to the forest, international musicians who carry the sounds of nature and the seeds of culture from all quarters of the world within their music. Other key characters are a heavy-handed Ealdorman who tries to save the forest by imposing greater and greater restrictions, and a reclusive artist living in the forest who provides intuitive wisdom born of her close connection with and immersion in nature. Then the settings emerged: a forest by the sea, a former palace turned cultural centre, a portside town, and a mysterious cottage in the woods with a magical tower and observatory.
I started to write, sitting at a corner desk in my one-bedroom maisonette with a cherry tree just outside the window, or in one of the many cafes in and around Cambridge.
In 2007 I embarked on a Masters degree in Children’s Book Illustration, envisaging, amongst other outcomes, a beautifully illustrated chapter book of my story, or even an interactive ebook with moving illustrations and strains of music at key moments. The course turned out not to be the right place to nurture the story, and a year in I took a break and a part-time job in a shop aptly named ‘One World is Enough’.
I continued to write. Then after focusing on finishing the MA in 2010, I completed the first draft of the story and The Riddle of the Trees was born.
Since then the story has undergone numerous revisions and attempts at publication while I have also been raising a family. Now, almost twenty years after first reading The Carbon War I feel inspired once again to try to get the story out into the wider world where I hope it will inspire young people and others to care more deeply about climate and biodiversity issues and to take individual and collective action. Perhaps when this happens we will be one small step closer to achieving not only carbon balance but also ‘Carbon Peace’.
Find out more
You can explore Salli’s creative work as artist, writer and educator via her ClimateCultures profile page and her website link there. And Salli’s recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake.
Jeremy Leggett’s The Carbon War is no longer in print but you can find second-hand copies online, and you can read a download of his follow up book, The Winning of the Carbon War at JeremyLeggett.net
In An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) by Davis Guggenheim, the film follows former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit, raising public awareness of the dangers of global warming. Grist has an interesting behind-the-scenes at how the film came about, An oral history of An Inconvenient Truth.
The 2017 ‘sequel’ film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Gore as he speaks with scientists and leaders, and is featured in this Scientific American (28/7/17) article, Al Gore Returns with an Ever-More Inconvenient Truth.
Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January 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.”
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 round 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 school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”
Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.”
“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”
She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”
“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”
To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.
“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”
There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”
“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):
“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”
It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”
“I had been my whole life a bell…”
For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”
“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”
Find out more
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.
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.
Following What the Bee Sees we have the second of two stories from Jennifer Leach, as told in the back room of a Reading pub as part of 2017's Festival of the Dark and its micro-festival Dazzle. Jennifer led the vision and creation of the year-long Festival of the Dark, helping us navigate the Celtic cycle of the year and explore the energies of the dark in its many forms. What if the world were other? Stretching imagination and shifting vision is a key to ‘waking up us all’ and forms the bedrock of Jennifer’s own work.
Last Thursday I went to visit my great 84-year old friend Anne Yarwood. For those of you who know RISC — the Reading International Solidarity Centre — she was the visionary who conceived it and brought it into being. After a cup of tea, we walked slowly out into her beautiful garden and sat in a small roofless shelter she calls The Lighthouse. We sat in amiable silence. And she then pointed to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and said, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I smiled and nodded and we sat there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity there, under the Earth.
As we sat so, I began to undergo a strange transformation. It is hard to put into words exactly what happened. A transmogrification, a molten transformation, a morphing of being and consciousness. In some manner not understood, I was within the tree, with a discombobulating sense of slightness. Glancing over, I could see that it was so too for Anne. What we had become I do not know. Witchety grubs, tree fleas, I am still unsure. And this is what then happened. In the subtlest way possible, both our surroundings and ourselves began to change. In some way, we were carried down within the heartwood of the tree, moving from the Upperland into the Netherworld beneath the soil. It was a gradual process, with the light around us dimming first into gloaming, and then into darkness; the quality of the darkness intensifying until it began to emerge as an alternative way of seeing. Our power of vision slipped incrementally from the organ of the eyes to that of the nose; we began to perceive through smell. As we descended, the darkness crystallized into the pungent scent of loam. Dim pictures formed in our nasal passages. Pictures of roots binding one with the other, spreading infinitely as a vast heaven; fungus-studded caverns hollowing with the peaty brooks that licked the leaf-moulded netherworld. Shadowy movements of fellow creatures and organisms waving, shaking, scuttling, padding. An interchange of whistling, calling, creaking, clicking; the groaning of taproots scraping anchor in the depths, the low whistle of insect calling water, the trickling flick of water calling beetle. The bark of a badger, the drumbeating rhythm of a mole at work. As we tunnelled further and further more damply downwards, the scraping against soil shaft of our own bodies crackled and cracked, breaking back and across our vibratory receptors.
Time was measured in the crawling pace of our carapaces, days by vivid vibrations, nights by a gentle hum. All we were, Anne and I, were sensations. No thought. No memory. No perception. No projection. No wondering what existed beyond our very own skins. No wondering what existed within our very own skins. No wondering what might exist beyond the rhizome roof that marked the boundary of our world. No wondering even what might be the boundary of our world. We simply were. Anne and I. Some sort of witchety grubs in a darkness dappled world of root and leafmould sensation.
How the experience ended, again neither of us can be sure. We were sitting, in amiable silence, in the small roofless shelter Anne calls the Lighthouse. And she was pointing to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and was saying, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I was smiling and nodding and we were sitting there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity, under the Earth.
Yet the sun was lower, the air cooler, with a hint of rain. We made our way slowly back towards the house. In companionable silence.
Find out more
You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.
Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.