Creating a Vessel

I have sat back without comment as the onslaught of ‘eco-art’ has burgeoned, all of it well-intentioned but much of it ill-informed and based on poor (or non-existent) science. So much of this work has no nuance, no greys, and very little by way of cogent argument. In an era where ‘truth’ is often placed in inverted commas, because as a society we seem to have lost any sense of what the word means, factoids and opinions based on little more than gut responses or intuition abound as absolute truth.

I suppose I’m bothered by these simplifications of the functioning of the natural world – all meat-eating is bad, we were never meant to consume cow’s milk, fox hunting is a plaything for the upper classes (‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’ according to Oscar Wilde) – because for much of my adult life I’ve been a rural dweller. Increasingly, we tend to reflect the knowledge of our tribe, and tribal knowledge is often narrowly defined and bucks little in the way of opposition. And I’m very much of a tribe of the non-mainstream where rejection of received (or lazy) wisdom is the common cause. I’m absolutely with the tribe in my views on Trump and American neo-colonialism, on GM foods, on Brexit, on recycling and re-using and shopping local and well… I suspect you know the rest.But my tribal instincts are blurred by my neighbours and by the places and communities in which I’ve lived and the friends I’ve had and the people I’ve interacted with. I know that grass-fed pasture-fed beef is not the same as grain-fed feed-lot hormone-laced beef; I understand that both place a burden on the planet, but that the environmental cost of the former is so much less than the latter. And yet, when the tribe spews the accepted knowledge about meat, it is only the story of the worst practices that are reflected. I know that fox hunting as it was traditionally practiced in the UK (and still is, to a large extent) had little to do with class (perhaps plenty to do with feudal structures, but that is not the same thing) but had a great deal to do with keeping horses and the horse-stock healthy, fit and strong, and ridding the land of less-than-healthy foxes and others who are considered to be vermin (unlike many others who attack livestock and crops, foxes kill far more than they will ever consume and are therefore inherently ecologically wasteful, rather like Homo sapiens, many of whose activities could also be classed as verminous in this sense of the word).Just as I had found myself becoming increasingly irritated and lacking in patience with the contemporary art world, finding so much of the work empty, vacuous, and plain silly, so I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with a great deal of so-called ‘eco-art’ which seems to be neither particularly ‘eco’ (in the sense that it is all too often based on ‘intuitive’ tribal knowledge rather than on ecological fact, and rigid in its thinking rather than fluid and open) nor good art.

art.earth grew out of a simple imperative: I felt the need to create a vessel for artists and organisations whose work focuses, or reflects, glories in, worries about, or dwells in this glorious troubled planet on which we live. This vessel is leaky, a bit porous, and probably not very seaworthy, but is nevertheless here to facilitate and support, to encourage and to cheer-lead those who wish to experiment and be bold and acknowledge and revel in the complexity of the questions at hand.

Above all, my original intent was to provide support for work that wasn’t about single-issue environmental tales: not about climate change, not about pollution, not about food.

It’s an attempt, in some way, to redress a balance, to create places where art and the environment can be talked about in forums where sloppy thinking could be challenged or interrogated, where scientists and philosophers could be as much at home as artists. I’m not sure we’ve achieved this yet, but we have gone part of the way and when designing our events or curating our exhibitions we do at least weed out sloppy thinking and ‘intuitive facts’ at an early stage.

In Other Tongues (June 2017) was our third symposium and came from a place that was entirely intuitive on my part: that the languages and knowledges of other-than-human were rich, meaningful and poorly understood by us. I worked with Mat Osmond and with a committee of artists and academics who brought rigour to what was originally quite a flabby idea. They also brought clear thinking and a degree of ruthlessness to the selection of presenters and others who shared their idea at the symposium.

This opening keynote from Prof. Wendy Wheeler exposed many of the themes of the conference: that animals, plants, fungi, bacteria – the stuff of life – are far from being mere living machines, but are semiotic, interpretative systems. ‘It turns out not to be so strange that humans have made art and song, because the nonhuman living systems from which humans have evolved are organised via structuring principles that are much more like art, music and poetry’ she told us. Prof. Wheeler introduced this new world of biological, cultural, human and more-than-human living meanings that biosemiotics uncovers and explores – Wordsworth’s ‘mighty sum of things for ever speaking’.

Our other keynote speaker was poet Alyson Hallett who explored the relationship between the human body and stones: how we interact and how we communicate with one another.  ‘At many times in my life,’ Alyson says, ‘a stone has acted as a compass and pointed me in a direction I might not have taken if I hadn’t listened to it.  What did this listening entail?  What did I hear when I listened?  Was it a stone language?  Or was something in my own imagination drawn out by the stone?’ Instead of seeking to identify answers, she instead meandered along probable and improbable pathways in search of a door that we can slip through and, if we’re lucky, find something we didn’t know we were looking for. And all of this coming from a place where the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical became ever more porous and ever more delicious.

These two approaches were in every sense bookends: as an academic theorist, Wendy Wheeler’s paper was challenging, deeply researched, and the result of a lifetime of thought. Alyson Hallett’s paper also reflected a lifetime of practice, but was utterly unafraid to talk about relationships and communication with objects other tribes would view as inert and inherently devoid not perhaps of meaning but of any ability to communicate or have agency.

Others explored sonic worlds, the penumbral, our animal selves, animal language, and material worlds of field, water, fungi. A number of presentations talked about the prevalence of animals in our myths and stories and their relevance today. Many explored animal being.

Surely all this was ripe for slippery truths, for the ill-expressed and ill-conceived – a factual void. Certainly at the first stage there was a great number of proposals that arguably fell into these categories, but what ultimately emerged was a collection of papers and other presentations, workshops and performances that provided opportunities for new physical and metaphysical explorations without any loss of connection to ground or intellectual rigour.

And for me this is redressing yet another balance. In a life that has embraced far too many academic conferences, I generally found them reflective of the academic world in general: competitive, point-scoring, bitchy, and rather depressing. I so desperately wanted art.earth events to have a different flavour than this rather bitter-tasting one. And so, it turned out, did everyone who became involved.

I’m struck, bowled-over, really, by the openness and generosity of spirit that accompanies these symposia – and our leaky vessel in general. I feel a huge debt of gratitude towards all those who take part and somewhat fearful that the magic will one day dissipate. Thus far, it has held as we have transitioned and grown. Perhaps some of this is due to remaining very open to styles and forms of presentation while not accepting obfuscation and language that has little meaning other than for the fully-initiate. Perhaps it is the setting and the fact that we roam across the ecological richness of the rural Dartington Hall estate. Perhaps it’s because England’s southwest peninsula is something of an edgeland – getting to us is hard and arduous and exhausting and the arriving a reward in itself. Perhaps it comes from selection, and self-selection and the openness of the participants. Perhaps it’s to do with ensuring that there are many ways of attending the event without necessarily paying the full registration rate. Perhaps it’s about tone. Perhaps it’s about flavour. There’s no bitterness here.

But perhaps it’s also it’s about ecology. When I use this word, I’m talking about ways of being, ways of paying attention and ways of interacting. I’m not speaking of ecology as a single truth or a set of scientific understandings but as an openness to knowledge, to organic process, to blurred edges and porous boundaries. I believe the events we create are ecological experiments, tickling the edges between rigorous thought and tribal knowledge. And above all they are about how we live here, on our planet, with our friends, family and cohorts, with our shared and separate knowledges and ways of being.

For more information: art.earth, In Other Tongues.

Ecologies of Meaning and Loss

I regret the lazy oversimplifications of our time. As our world becomes ever fuller with accessible information, ever more porous, ever more pressing with demands for our attention, so our subtler semiotic capacities appear to stall before the task. Our attempts at interpretation and meaning-making are overwhelmed: more information means less meaning. In this regard, I am struck by the prescience of the late Jean Baudrillard. Thirty years ago he described the mass media as


“speech without response”. What characterizes the mass media is that they are opposed to mediation, intransitive, […] they fabricate noncommunication – if one accepts the definition of communication as an exchange, as the reciprocal space of speech and response, and thus of responsibility.

Since then, the mass media have swelled with the growth of social media, a surrogate community but conspicuously lacking in the responsiveness and responsibility that Baudrillard thought central to that contract. This has encouraged mob-like hysteria and support for banning, no-platforming and the censorship of speech and thought, as well as amplifying non-communication and non-reciprocity. Words slip and slide. What meant one thing yesterday means something slightly different today. People are frightened to speak. Orwellian duckspeak (speaking without thinking, quacking what’s politically acceptable, even if meaningless) increasingly rules. A new way of thinking about communication, signs and meanings – as biological as well as cultural, and as evolutionary and ecological rather than just as human-made fictions – might help us escape from the dangerous fantasies growing in our midst. Nature and language are made from the same communicative patterns. We are part of the semiotic dance of natural and cultural meanings, but we are not their masters.

Biosemiotics, which bridges the sciences and the humanities, is a new field of study and a new way of understanding the world. It takes its name from bios (Greek for life) and semeion (Greek for sign). Its central insight is that all living organisms experience their world through signs which they must make sense of, or interpret. In other words, all organisms are in a communicative relation with their semiotic worlds, and these worlds are full of other forms of communicative semiotic life. Biosemioticians refer to these semiotic worlds as umwelten (plural of umwelt, or semiotic environment). They consist of all the sign relations which species’ evolution has made relevant to the organism’s meaningmaking. For example, many birds and insects see at the ultraviolet end of the light spectrum, where humans do not. Their umwelt, in other words, is slightly different. For humans, the cultures they have made are relevant to their existence as humans, and these exist as living ideas, artefacts and technology – interwoven with the human umwelt of nature. There is an underlying reality, but every species has evolved to experience it in the way that is most useful for that species’ life and survival.

Biosemiotics came into being as various scientists and scholars in both semiotics and the life sciences realised that information and communication systems involving living beings could not be understood simply in terms either of mathematics and engineering, or in terms of signals alone. Information is only fully meaningful when it is capable of in-form-ing, or changing the form of, something – whether shape, development, behaviour or idea. Signals imply something mechanical (for example, that this chemical or word always automatically causes this response). However, as became clear to many molecular biologists, ecologists and biological developmental systems scientists, let alone to people working in the fields associated with human communication, representation and interpretation (from anthropology to psychology to sociology, literature and the arts), neither cells, nor bodies, nor ecologies nor poems consist of or call for automatic responses. Although much semiosis settles into habit (meanings can’t work without some stability and capacity for repetition; communication depends upon it), meanings are the result of a process of discovery and interpretation. Life is process, and all organisms must be capable of change in response to changing conditions.

Influenced by thinkers such as the American scientist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the German-Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll and the British biologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, biosemiotics tells us that all life, not just human life but all life everywhere, is about communication, semiosis, interpretation and meaning-making. Without it, merely material life is nothing, and could not exist as living at all. Human meaning-making has evolved from meaning-making in nature. Both nature and culture grow from the same evolutionary source. Whether we are super-aware of it or not, we are all influenced by the communicational feedback loops that flow between selves and natural and cultural environments. When meanings (or functions) go wrong at any point in these sense-making circuits, all our living systems fall into potential danger. So what are we doing to ourselves and the planet when we allow this ceaseless slippage of natural and cultural meanings that starts to dismantle the life of our worlds?

One striking effect of this globalisation of human experience – that difficult stretching of selves between the familiar and the far away – is that we withdraw into simplicities. As we have seen in the recent unpredictability of electorates, the old methods of pollsters not only fail to read the new codes of human political behaviour, they no longer even know what they should be reading. Indeed, they have become unsure about whether these are any longer codes they are dealing with or merely broken fragments of codes. Like language going backwards, and in an echo of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith’s comrade Syme tells Winston ‘You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words’, these broken simplifications are bought at a cost. The complexity of identity is reduced to a fantasy of infantile legibility, one based on reductions to sex, colour or creed, and, via the idea of intersectionality, the places where these depthless identities cross and combine.

So how might it work, retelling the story of human and nonhuman being on this planet in ways that restore some appropriate depth and meaning? Like all good stories, the story biosemiotics tells is one about the finding of purpose and meaning. It turns out that it’s everywhere, wherever there is life. Indeed, the whole universe is legible – which is a strange thing when you come to think about it. This means not only are there regularities, habits in the order of being, but these habits are semiotic. They reveal not simply themselves but much more besides. Recalling that the definition of a sign is that ‘a sign is anything that stands for something other than itself’, the universe is full of signs. As Charles Peirce wrote,

It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe, – not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as part, the universe which we are accustomed to refer to as ‘the truth,” – that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.

The potential to mean lies in things themselves – even in non-living things – inasmuch as they can serve as signs for living readers, or selves, or meaning systems, which are external to observers or readers themselves. This, which semioticians call physiosemiosis, is what the physicist Carlo Rovelli also says even about non-living entities at the quantum level where relational effects appear operative instantaneously, i.e. beyond the speed of light and regardless of physical distance. This is because while codes and channels must be material, relations in themselves are not. Interestingly from a biosemiotic perspective, Rovelli is making use of the idea that information can inhere in objects relationally, regardless of whether or not it is ever effective. In other words, his is a relational view of information and the universe. This is also true, and perhaps more obviously so, of biosemiotics. As I argue in my 2016 book Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, ontology, i.e. being itself, is always relational. Clearly, this has many implications – not least ones that are fundamentally ecological. I will return to this shortly when I discuss the relational – environed and enworlded – selves, both human and nonhuman, that biosemiotics suggests.

I am prompted to mention Rovelli because at the In Other Tongues conference held at Dartington Hall recently I was struck by the ways in which the many artists present were striving to articulate a sense of meaning-making very closely tied to place. I was especially struck by their use of stones to do it. Several of them brought stones from other places. I have one on my desk before me now as I write. Like all creative people in whatever realm, these makers were following their noses, in this case in order to express a way of bringing something solid about memory, being and place into line with their sense that these things of place ‘spoke’, albeit in other tongues, to creatures. All search for knowledge (in the arts and the sciences) is underpinned by an initial ‘hunch-like’ or ‘informed guessing’ approach to problems. Since it helps us begin the search for new knowledge, abductive reasoning is a part of the logic of right reasoning. It is the starting place for hypothesis, upon which the conscious acts of deductive thought and inductive testing can follow and build. Peirce thought that the surprising successfulness of abductive reasoning was due to our being attuned to nature (i.e. the way things are in our world) intuitively. This kind of knowing draws on the fact that our knowledge is semiotic, associative, and exists nonconsciously far beneath the thin rind of conscious reasoning. As the scientist Michael Polanyi said, we know much more than we can tell.

These kinds of ‘beneath the rind’ semiotic memories are acquired in our human animal experience and can go back through many evolutionary layers. Since the 1940s, Neo-Darwinism has attempted to reduce evolution to genes and genetic mutation alone. We now know that this is wrong because it is a partial account only. There are many factors at work in evolution. Genes are not blueprints for producing bodies. The genome is more like a library. It provides encoded information (the genetic code in DNA) about available materials and their organisation. Both genetically coded signs inside the body, and also environmentally encoded signs outside it, can switch genetic information on and off and influence development. In addition, and in the way first hypothesised 200 years ago by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, some environmental signs (as we now know, often messages about stressors – both natural and cultural) can be inherited by subsequent generations. If reinforced by the environment, such acquired characteristics can eventually doubtless become permanent. Memories, of feelings and place, live in our cells. Epigenetic activities’, such as lateral gene transfer, symbiosis and micro-organism assisted functional development, all contribute to the successful lives of organisms. We are not alone, but many. Approximately 99% of all the DNA which keeps you alive is not yours, but belongs to the myriad other life forms that live in and upon you, and surround and support you.

Evolution itself can most usefully be understood as organisms and ecological systems making creative re-readings of new conditions in the creative and destructive dance of life’s past and potential meanings. The development of the mammalian ear, for example, depends on the movement of two bones in the jaw of an early fish via reptilian evolution. Once moved, the bones form the architecture of the mammalian eardrum. These bones were not made to be ear bones capable of transmitting sound, but they have become capable of doing so. They are sufficiently like what would be needed to carry that function. As such, they can eventually actually carry that function. Just as in human uses of metaphor, on the basis of sufficient similarity of some kind, a new different meaning (or function) is capable of being discovered. The importance of umwelt (i.e. context) for the genetic expression of informational similarity is demonstrated, for example, by research undertaken by the late Walter Gehring into the gene PAX6. This gene governs eye development. When Gehring injected Mouse PAX6 into fruit fly embryos, the resultant fruit flies had eyes all over where they had been randomly injected, but these eyes were fruit fly eyes, not mouse eyes. In other words, just as context influences meanings in human language, so umwelt context (in this case a fruit fly body, not a mouse body) influences formal genetic expression of biosemiotic meanings.

The point about all this is that we live, like all other life forms – animal, plant, fungal, bacterial – in the midst of enormously complex networks of semiotic life. Human culture is just the form that natural culture and evolution has taken with human beings. We cannot step outside these networks, or say that we are influenced and made in one and not in the other. The distinction is nearly meaningless. Most of what we are as people is not conscious at all. It is made of natural and cultural loops of signs and messages, some very ancient, which weave us into the more complex material and semiotic systems of the cosmos. These forms of knowledge live on in our memories, and these memories are cellular and embodied and enworlded as much as they are ‘mental’ and cultural. Our evolutionary life is written in our bodies and our worlds and in our cultural and technological documents and artefacts. Indeed, human mind is made up of all these things. It is, in truth, a living universe of signs.

Whether walking across a meadow or a metropolis, it seems wonderful to know that this whole world is full of ceaseless communication and meaning. The motor of life’s endless creativity and adaptation is not simply random and meaningless mutation but purposeful organismic intelligence lodged in the relation between organisms and their natural and cultural umwelten. Mind, itself, is not a material thing. It is made of biosemiotic relations of similarity, difference and interpretation that flow constantly between a body, an environment and some form of living memory. No colour and no love and no pictures or sounds will ever be found in your brain, just as the things themselves are never found in a poem, a song or a painting. Just as in any ‘textual’, or coded, form of organisation, what resides in your nervous system and brain are encoded correlations to lived experience. It is perhaps highly significant that brains are formed, in embryonic development, from specialised skin. What once touched the world literally, and first began encoding its meanings as literally felt memories of the world right here, now encodes and translates both your world here and now, and also its dreams and abstractions, there and then, once and future. A brain in a vat could never generate meaning. What is needed for mind is a living body in a lived world. Place, or umwelt, isn’t incidental. Places, and the tongues that ‘speak’ there, are a central aspect of what makes us. Human linguistic meaning-making in metaphor does not spring brand new and unbidden from the cosmos. It has evolved from natural metaphors and meanings which are gathered in evolutionary layers in all the life forms of this planet. The evolving organism draws on these hidden and nonconscious layers of meaning-making, and so do the poet, the artist and the scientist as they discover new forms of living knowledge.

This brings me to my final point about the simplification of meanings. There’s nothing simple about them. Material structures – whether of an institution or an organism – are empty vessels without communicative life. Just as thought is built via a sort of scaffolding of half-concepts and thin meanings that will, in time, make possible the building of whole new conceptions and ways of life, so semiotic scaffolding provides the possibility of life and structure to our future growth and development. Material structures provide the necessary channels and codes through which objects become animated, but without the life of signs the clay of things is nothing. True communication involves looping cybernetic flows of semiosis which grow and refine meanings in concert between a responsive organism and a responsive umwelt. This involves the hard work and responsibility of attentiveness and regard. This means that meanings are discovered as what is possible within the constraints of systems and ecologies – and we see this echoed in the historical constraints on the forms they make possible. When meanings become unstable, inventiveness through exchange may be possible, and new habits may be made and laid down. But when reciprocity is refused or absent, then we are nothing but a chaos of broken relations. With that, we are in the presence of what the Estonian semiotician Ivar Puura called semiocide. Carelessness over meanings – in nature and in culture – is a symptom of relational sickness. This sickness can kill the systems it infects.

Conjuring Yew Trees and Mountains

You, my friend, are alone, because
We, with words and pointing fingers,
gradually make the world our own
– Nietzsche

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Language’ – in part – as: ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.’ 

As a troubling of this definition of language, I would suggest that language is more than a medium through which humans communicate. Further, I’d like to suggest that language goes even deeper than the broadest notions of language as a medium for communication, such as body language, or birdsong.

I’d like to trouble the very ontological underpinnings of language – ontology being the field of inquiry that has to do with the fundamentals of being itself, whose practitioners circle round questions of what exists, and what does not exist. I suggest that language might be thought of instead as spell casting; spells whose enactment themselves allow for the conjuring of particular realities and relationships to co-emerge into the world. Where David Abrams reminds us that ‘spell’ as in magic, and ‘spell’ as in writing share the same root, the understanding of language as spell-conjuring offers a relational landscape within which to consider methods of communication between ourselves and non-human beings that are not limited and impoverished by understandings of language as a blunt unidirectional instrument for naming and categorising; in other words, an inanimist’s appropriation of language as a taxonomic tool for slicing up and measuring an external, objective composite of dead matter.

By slightly re-working a standard definition of ‘animism’, I propose that inanimism could be defined by:

• a belief that the vital principle of organic development is exclusively materialistic
• a denial of conscious life to objects in – and phenomena of, nature – or to inanimate
..objects
• 
denial of the existence of spirits separable from material bodies¹

wild animals chicken


Within such a comparison, the difference between ‘
spelling’ as labelling of parts, vs. ‘spelling’ as a co-emergent conjuring, becomes clearer when one considers the roots of the word.

The etymology of ‘spell’, from its Proto-Germanic roots, means something like: ‘to tell or utter a story or a myth’. It also means ‘to enchant the thing of which you speak’, where enchantment, from the Latin incantare, means ‘to sing’. The formal greetings of ‘enchanted’ in English, enchenté in French, or encantado/a in Spanish, retain their original pre-inanimist understandings of being and relationship. In a pre-inanimist Europe, ‘enchanted’ did not function as a polite way of saying: ‘it’s my pleasure to meet you.’ Rather, it was a gesture of humility and acknowledgement that one’s own being relies upon the other for its existence. ‘Enchanted’ literally means: ‘thank you for singing me into existence.’ And if a song might be understood to be a way of telling a story, then thank you for spelling me – thank you for conjuring me.

‘Conjure’ – from the Latin com, ‘together’, and iurare, from which we get the word ‘jury’ – means to swear an oath. And ‘swear’ means to speak, or say or tell, while an oath is a solemn appeal to a deity to witness a truth or a promise. So to conjure is to swear – together – to a truth or a promise in the presence of the divine.

Taking this spiralling route to consider what this thing we call language is, I would suggest that what we call language is a conjuring in which the divine, or great mystery, or that which dwells beyond our capacity for understanding, is invoked in the enchantment of a story that is true. Malidoma Somé explains that among his people, the Dagara, there is no word that translates directly as ‘the supernatural’. Rather, he describes the word that they use – Yielbongura – as ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat’. For him this word suggests that ‘the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorising knowledge that human beings apply to everything.’²

Each language – each tongue, each assemblage of communicative protocols and citational iterations – is itself a unique bundle of spells whose conjuring is attended to by the animating force of life itself, which by its very nature can never be known but only invoked through the co-mingling of the immaterial with the material.

Detail of the Rosetta Stone
Detail of the Rosetta Stone

In all Indo-European languages, which include, among others, English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian, it’s not possible to utter a sentence without locating it within either the past, present, or future. In these languages, reality itself cannot be conjured anywhere outside of a linear, progressive spectrum of time.

In just one comparative example, when describing an event or condition in Hopi – an indigenous language of north-eastern Arizona – you must use grammatical markers that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, or consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammar to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information. I offer the possibility that certain realities, certain bundles of spells, are beyond one’s capacity if one doesn’t have the ability to know and integrate the language, or the articulated tongue, that conjures those particular spells; spells which require their own particular protocols or grammars, and whose conjuring allows for particular relationships to potentially co-emerge.

It’s in this context of language as a co-conjuring that I want to introduce two individuals that I’ve been working and studying with. Michael Dunning is a native of Glasgow who now lives in the state of Massachusetts, and Jaki Daniels left her birthplace of England as a young child and has lived in Calgary, Alberta ever since. Their respective journeys are unique and wholly their own, however there are overarching similarities between them which are the reason why I’m choosing to draw on both their experiences to better observe, understand, and describe the qualities of non-human communication which greatly shape their lives.

The full extent of Michael and Jaki’s journeys are well beyond the scope of this post. What’s similar is that neither had any previous experience or priming for entering into a mutually communicative relationship with yew trees or mountains and each in their own way were initially confronted and called into these relationships by the tree or mountain themselves. What subsequently followed these initial contacts, once accepted, was a process of initiation, teachings, and preparation which was both physical and intellectual, extremely demanding, and repeatedly pushing them to the very limits of their capacities. For Michael, it began when an acquaintance brought him to an ancient yew tree, guiding him through the thick bramble and into the cathedral-like understory of this thousands-of-years-old tree, in whose presence Michael experienced a kind of ecstatic quickening which initiated a process of healing him from severe illness. Upon subsequent visits, he would come into apprenticeship to the tree itself, returning to it ceaselessly over a period of nine years in which his physical and energy bodies were deconstructed and restructured in a manner to allow him to act as a conduit for the kinds of teachings and medicines which the tree was offering to impart through him. Without any guidance or contemporary context for his deepening relationship with the yew tree, Michael dug through history and mythology to make sense of what he was experiencing, and eventually uncovered a wealth of long-forgotten knowledges that were once thick throughout these very British Isles. What Michael was discovering along his journey was the ancient cult of the yew tree; an indigenous spiritual tradition which was spread throughout Europe, and most concentrated in the British Isles. Among these indigenous British cultures, being apprenticed to a sacred yew tree to become a healer was likely a significant event, yet nothing strange or unusual within the ontology, or beliefs of the culture itself.

Micheal Dunning

Some of the yew trees in Britain are thousands of years old, with the Fortinghall Yew in North-Central Scotland estimated to be one of the oldest trees in Europe; perhaps 5,000 years old. While the possibility of having a tree communicate and act as a teacher and guide has essentially disappeared from modern inanimist cultures, the memories of some of our same contemporary yew trees themselves would know human cultures that communicated with them regularly; who knew and understood and practiced the bundle of spells with which they were able to be in profound relationship with such yew trees. From the tree’s perspective, Michael may potentially be but one more individual in this ancient lineage of inter-species apprentices.

For Jaki Daniels, her initial contact came while out for a leisurely hike with a friend in the Kananaskis mountains outside Calgary, during which she was rendered speechless by the voice of the mountain itself – inaudible to her friend but experienced as a booming voice inside Jaki’s head – which simply stated: I have a story to tell.’ Jaki said nothing to her friend, nor to her husband when she returned home, and tried to dismiss the experience as an oddity she couldn’t explain, and had no context for making sense of. When subsequent similar experiences continued in the presence of the same mountain – which she eventually referred to as Grandmother Mountain for its role as an elder and teacher – she finally sought the guidance of indigenous elders, and it was through these First Nations’ understandings of being called into the role of a Medicine Woman by a sacred mountain itself that Jaki began to build an understanding of what she was being called into.

Jaki Daneils

Through the support of an elder Cree woman named Pauline, acting as her human guide in these ways, Jaki was similarly initiated and instructed by the mountain itself, and through that primary relationship has been able to build up considerable skill in not just communication with this mountain, but a wide range of animals, plants, and weather-beings. Unlike Michael and these British Isles, Jaki had recourse to seek the knowledge and instruction of local indigenous cultures that still retain some semblance of this pre-inanimist reality, and who keep alive the protocols and traditions that have been gifted to them from their ancestors and the land itself.

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Last summer, some of us were gathered around a fire in Jaki’s yard in Calgary on a chilly night, sharing tea and stories about mountains in both Canada and Scotland. At one point, the energy shifted and became dense as Jaki shared an insight that had been given to her by an indigenous friend. What had begun to happen, in communities around North America, was that indigenous peoples were reporting to each other how some of their sacred mountains themselves were, for the first time ever, starting to show symptoms of perhaps something like Alzheimer’s; a lack of coherence, a confusion setting in, with the consequences being that they were sometimes having a hard time giving protocols and teachings to the human communities who looked to them as sources of wisdom and inter-species elders. What the various communities suspect is happening is that as the earth’s living systems are increasingly destabilised and compromised, the ability of the very land itself to maintain coherence and lucidity is starting to show signs of unravelling. It’s perhaps not such a stretch to be able to imagine that, in a time of ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘fake news’, all forms of information, even those held in the land, are suffering for a lack of coherence and integrity. It’s possible that ancient grammars are fragmenting under the burden of inanimist culture; totemic tongues may be growing thick and slow, their articulatory capacities calcifying as the land itself strains to remember its own name and its own tongue. And, perhaps, our own forgetting and unravelling is not separate from the land itself, but is yet just another expression of the land forgetting its own nature under the conjured onslaught of inanimist spells. It’s possible.

And wondering on the nature of Jaki and Michael’s experiences, it’s also possible that their processes represent a remarkable capacity for the land itself to initiate individuals into tongues and grammars that our culture has denied and denigrated for centuries. The modern trinity of church, state and science have done much to delegitimise the tongues that many of our ancestors knew well — the spells that animated relationships between human and non-human in a dialogue that seems unbelievable to many today, and yet continues below the surface, like the subterranean streams of some deserts that are utterly invisible by the harsh glare of daylight. But come the cooling darkness of night, the waters seep to the surface in gurgling spurts, until a steady babble flows across the sands, bringing life with it and sustaining those beings that are called to its mysterious edges.

Colorado River, Arizona
Colorado River, Arizona

I myself am not a whisperer of mountains or yew trees. The quality of communication that Jaki and Michael relate has not come to me in any comparable way. And yet, being with them and learning from them does much to trouble and interrogate the narratives that were imparted to me by my culture. How does one reconcile two stories of reality that are seemingly at odds with each other, and what is at stake when one opens oneself up to the possibility that the conjuring of particular spells allows for dialogue with a mountain or a 5,000 year-old tree? What might a pedagogy of non-human whispering look like, and what stories need to be crafted to foster the capacity for such languages?

There is much to be grieved within the unravelling times we are living through. And perhaps the grief itself is a way through – a gathering to the edge of dark flowing mystery, beyond the hope of struggling on in the same impoverished means that brought us here. And from beyond the obsidian horizon of our capacities for understanding, perhaps the whispered traces of long un-conjured grammars and protocols may be redeemed and recovered, and from which we may once again come to know the articulation of languages that serve to honour, and speak to, and nourish, that which sustains our days.

Notes

1. The original definition of Animism reads as: 1) a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit 2) attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects 3) belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies:  ‘Definition of ANIMISM’. 2017. Accessed 27 June.
2. Somé, Malidoma, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of
an African Shaman, Penguin, 1995

 

An Underswell of Divination

A virus that infects all other areas of thinking  

In the 1970s and ’80’s the poet Ted Hughes and the sculptor and printmaker Leonard Baskin worked together on a number of books of illustrated poetry. Among these, their first collaboration, Crow, trailed by its lesser-known sequel Cave Birds, quickly became iconic. Already a household name in the States, Baskin remarked ruefully at the time that his reputation in England rested almost solely on having illustrated the cover of Crow.

What was it that made Crow so contagious an image? Among the ways we might run with that question, I want to suggest here that what we meet staring back at us from Crow’s ponderous, guilty face may include a burgeoning sense of unease, or dislocation, that the writer Timothy Morton, some 40 years later, has spoken of as ‘the ecological thought’.

Far from a conscious preoccupation with ‘going green’, Morton’s ecological thought concerns the all-pervasive entanglement of our immediate experience within a slippery, centre-less ‘mesh’ – a strangely ungraspable web of relations wherein both other beings, and our own queasily interconnected fields of experience, only get weirder, more deeply haunted by a sense of otherness, the longer we look at them.

So the ecological thought, for Morton, isn’t really a ‘position’ that we might choose to accept or reject. Its something more autonomous than that, more devious, even – a thing acting upon us already, like a strand of DNA code. Like a virus, as Morton puts it, infecting all other systems of thinking, feeling and behaviour, altering them from within, gradually depleting the incompatible ones.

A verb that’s sometimes used to talk about what illustration does is to illuminate, as in to shed light on. As a way of talking about image-making, it’s a word closely associated with religion, of course, with traditions of the sacred. So what might it look like for a drawing to illuminate this creeping infection within our inherited notions of the human, and of that sacred animal’s place within what so many now to refer to, following the writer David Abram’s lead, as a ‘more-than-human world’? And what sort of light, in particular, might such an illustration shed on the curious blank spot that grows, like an unthinkable numbness, on the other side of poor environmentalism’s must do better?

With these preoccupations on the table, then, I’d like to look back to Hughes’ and Baskin’s collaboration – to see what their Crow, and his afterbirth Cave Birds, might have to say about all this. So here’s an 11-minute clip from The Artist and the Poet, the film-maker and photographer Noel Chanan’s 1983 recording of Baskin and Hughes discussing the evolution of this work.

A magical operation

Crow and Cave Birds form the core of a 15-year creative friendship between Baskin and Hughes, begun when both were well-established in their respective fields. And, as Baskin puts it, their two streams of work were already ‘crow-haunted’ when they met. Baskin, who seeded the idea for Crow, speaks of their relationship as ‘not one of influence, but of presence’. Of Crow’s presence, we might say, within both men’s lives – their friendship a matter of reciprocal recognition, as each found the face of their abject-exultant familiar mirrored in the work of the other. It was this sort of mutual recognition, perhaps, that sustained the 15-year imaginal dialogue between them – a conversation that flowed both through and about practice, and which operated, as we’ll see, on several levels at once.

And here, then, is our first layer of hidden agenda: that ‘magical operation’ that Hughes observes, swimming through their work at an invisible level. Hughes is being playful perhaps, but his pleasure is palpable as he shares his discovery, years after the fact, of a prophetic element within their collaboration, hiding in plain sight in both words, and pictures – a strikingly precise foreshadowing of Baskin’s soon-to-be diagnosed brain tumour, and of the subsequent operation to remove it.

And there’s a shared sense of confirmation, it seems, in that discovery. But, a confirmation of what? Whatever the nature of this elusive enchantment, one thing we can say about it is that it went about its quiet business, unobserved, as the two men focused their attention on developing the work’s main themes, on honing its constituent parts. We can also note that, for Hughes at any rate, this kind of autonomous, invisible agency within poetry was no less than an article of faith, and a creative touchstone: that any genuine collaboration between artists, for instance, happens ‘at this hidden, telepathic level – or not at all’.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.38.46
Illustration for ‘Cave Birds’, Leonard Baskin


An underswell of divination

Which brings us to a second unspoken presence within Baskin’s Crow, and to – as he puts it – the voluntary ‘iron fetters’ against which their work pressed. Hughes comments in The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, his introduction  to Baskin’s graphic oeuvre, on his friend’s famously derisive criticality – on Baskin’s insistence, in both art and life, on the tangible, the real, and his abhorrence for anything within art which he saw as departing from that real. And real, for Baskin, meant the weight of ‘our common suffering’, for which – as with his great mentor, William Blake – the only ‘whole and adequate symbol’ was the human form. But, unlike Mr Blake’s, Hughes observes the human form that we encounter in Baskin’s work to be in a highly permeable state of flux, enduring constant incursions by other entities, and undergoing a prolonged, unstable mutation.

And braced against Baskin’s wide-awake, sceptical gaze, Hughes’ essay goes on to observe a pressure, mounting as what he calls ‘a biological weight of necessity’ within that parade of monsters. Hughes imagines its unspoken, insistent presence as ‘an underswell of divination’. Not exactly religious, perhaps, although we’re in that territory.  ‘Something’, Hughes speculates, ‘that survives in the afterglow of collapsed religion’. All of that ‘inward learned Jewishness’ in which the Rabbinically-trained Baskin was saturated, ‘busy dreaming for him’, below his conscious radar, ‘in a rigorous, divining fashion’. And this hidden religious life that The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly proposes as the kernel of his friend’s graphic work, is revealed, Hughes suggests, not so much in the mythic vocabulary which it adopts, as in the mark which transmits all of those cumbersome, zoomorphic angels to the page.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.40.35
Illustration for ‘Cave Birds’, Leonard Baskin


The scratch-marks of an arcane calligraphy

And here, then, is the fundamental constraint framing this collaborative work. One shared, for all their marked differences, by both artists, as they trained their gaze on form, language, poetic resonance. Hughes’ prose writings show how his lifelong interest in the numinous and the supernatural was grounded, at all times, in a close attention to the possibilities of language – to the dangling etymological roots, the emergent rhythms, the incantatory power of words. Likewise, in The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Hughes suggests that it is first and foremost in Baskin’s line that we encounter the central character of his work – his graphic line ‘an image in itself – his fundamental image’. The scratch-marks of an arcane calligraphy, as Hughes puts it, ‘improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’. And that charge of secretive spiritual exultation coursing along Baskin’s graphic line, most fully personified, earthed, in those mutating raptors he could never quite get away from, who kept precipitating from its presence ‘as crystals out of a supersaturated solution…solid and sharp with the salts and metals of it’, to be absorbed through the eye and into the nervous system of the viewer, where ‘they dissolve back into the real knowledge and presence of it’.

As between poet and the illustrator, then, so between between line and image, between image and word, and between reader, and both: a relationship of presence.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.38.21
Illustration for ‘Cave Birds’, Leonard Baskin


A hole in the fabric of our understanding

If Timothy Morton’s playful entanglement of the ongoing conversations between art and ecology does offer a good line of approach to this work, I think Crow returns the favour, with interest. ‘The current ecological disaster’, Morton tells us, ‘has torn a giant hole in the fabric of our understanding’. Or rather, it hasn’t. It might be nearer the mark to say that ecological collapse has revealed the gaping hole underlying the dominant culture’s relentless, instrumentalist logic – or as my friend Christos Galanis might put that, the hole beneath its aberrant, in-animist worldview.

If there’s a hole here, its surely one that – throughout our species’ lethal 12,000-year swerve off its slow track through deep time – has been here all along. And the crucial role of art in negotiating this leaky territory right under our civilised feet may turn out to have less to do with Green message-dissemination (however urgent, or desperate the cause) than it does with art holding open a space within that dying way of life which is used to accommodating intensity, shame, abjection, loss; used to welcoming persistent imaginal others to the table, familiar visitors who give tongue to whatever grieving, intractable dilemmas civilised humans find themselves unable or unwilling to speak within their brightly-lit, death-phobic culture.

As the warnings of impending disaster get more shrill by the day, Crow’s quizzical stare points out, perhaps, that – as Morton puts it – the disaster’s already happened, so ‘it’s important not to panic, and strange to say, overreact to the tear in the real. If it’s always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?’ Maybe that’s what we can hear in Crow’s unkillable laughter, as he spraddles about inside that hole, looking for stuff to eat. A curious thought, that nothing ecological crisis might throw at us could exceed the sheer, feathered strangeness of our own embodied, animal natures.

Baskin Crow
Cover illustration for ‘Crow’, Leonard Baskin


Sources

Hughes, Ted & Baskin, Leonard, Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber, 1975
Hughes, Ted, Crow:
From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1970
Hughes, Ted, ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’, from Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Faber and Faber, 1995
Morton, Timothy, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, 2010

The Artist and the Poet, Noel Chanan’s 2009 DVD of his 1983 audio recording of Hughes and Baskin, accompanied by the author’s photographic essay. Copies of The Artist and the Poet are available here: tedhughes.online

Images

1-4: Illustrations for Cave Birds, Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber 1975. © The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York
5: Cover illustration for Crow, Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber 1970. © The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

 

The Migration Habits of Stones

It’s August, 2001. Six months since my nan, Hilda Hallett, died. I loved my nan. She lived in a terraced, red-bricked house in Bridgwater, Somerset. We used to watch the wrestling on a Saturday in front of a gas fire and eat the cake she had baked for my visit. Chocolate cake, coffee cake, cherry cake. All of them delicious. Her house was the centre of our lives. The door was never locked. There was a plastic curtain swishing in the hall to deter flies from coming in during the summer months when the door was left open. My nan polished the brass strip at the entrance to her house, she also swept her bit of pavement, and sometimes the stretch of road outside her door. Seven children in one small house and you value the way private space spills into public space. The expansion this gives. The way private and public are stitched together.

I had 26 aunts and uncles and 57 cousins: but when my nan died, she left a gash in our lives the depth and height of Cheddar gorge.

Six months after we took her body to the crematorium in Taunton, my nan appeared in my dreams. You need to go and climb Cader Idris, she said. When I woke up her voice was ringing in my head. I knew that Cader Idris was a mountain in the Snowdonia range in North Wales, but I also knew that I didn’t climb mountains, I was busy and had no intention of doing what a voice in a dream had told me to do. I decided to ignore it, to assume that it would just dissolve, as most dreams do.

How wrong was I?

Night and day Nan’s voice haunted me. It seeped into everything. It was ink in water. Sugar in coffee. The buzz of a trapped fly. Go and climb Cader Idris. Go and climb Cader Idris. In the end I cancelled work, hired a car, threw a tent and a sleeping bag into the boot and set off for Wales. On the long drive there, my mind was febrile. I had no idea what I was doing. Was I mad to be following a voice in a dream? Had I lost the plot altogether? If only I’d had this quote from Anaïs Nin, I might have been a bit more gracious in my surrender. She says:

The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.

I pitched my tent by a river. Slept badly. Woke early and laced up my boots. Before entering the foothills, I lit a candle and incense and asked for permission to climb. Rituals are important to me. They ground me. Centre me. Allow me to knock on a door and begin lacing together different levels of reality. And as the poet Homer notes, all gods and goddesses love to come down and feast on perfumed incense smoke. That morning at the base of Cader Idris, I was almost hoping to hear the word no, so that I could pack everything up, go home and return to a way of being that I thought of as normal. But no didn’t come. And so I set off, up the stony path, up the steep and stony path that wound its way to the summit.

I was out of my mind. I was in it too. I was a confusion of thoughts. I was walking a stony path. Walking into moss, into the tumbling stream, into the gnarled bark of old oaks that fringed the stream. W.G. Sebald says:

work gets done in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he’s looking for.

I was listening to my animal self, my uncivilised self, the lizard that still inhabits the core of my brain. I was like the dog following its nose, only this time I was following a dream with my feet. In the foothills of Cader Idris, I lay down on a low-lying branch of an oak and dissolved.

‘Foothills Girl, Cader Idris

I’m a dedicated foothills girl
dreaming where the stream runs fast
and trees screech towards the sky.

At home in the crook of an oak
watching moss-skinned stones
while the mountain climbs behind me.

no-one else stops here but me, seduced
by low-life greening and the perfume of pine.
Nothing here is mine and I’m madly in love –

thinking of proposing marriage to a mountain
if you’re allowed to do such a thing.
Love, honour and obey – I’d stay faithful

to this rock more easily than any human.
We’d live out our mutual passion day by voluptuous day
until the floods came or we both melted with the sun.

I continued to climb the mountain. Halfway up I came across a boulder by the side of the path and stopped to stare at it. It looked out of place, as if it didn’t belong. I saw a man approaching from a distance. As he came nearer, he said hello then stopped to talk. He asked why I was looking at the boulder. I’m wondering where it came from, I said. It’s an erratic, he said. A what? I said. An erratic. A stone that broke away from its motherbed and travelled inside a glacier. Really? I said. The man nodded, then told me he was a geologist.

I stared at the boulder – it had travelled hundreds of miles across the country, the glacier making gorges and valleys as it sawed through the ground with its icy prow. And all the while the little boulder inside, like a baby, or an eye, waiting for the sun to warm up, for enough heat to melt the ice and release it.

It took a moment or two for the geologist’s words to sink in. Stones moved. They migrated from one place to another. They did not stop for borders or boundaries. Solid as a rock / written in stone – suddenly everything I knew about stones flipped on its head. They weren’t just fixed in one place; they were travellers.

And that was it. The moment when a seed was planted and took root in the disturbed soil of my mind.

I continued to the top of the mountain, said goodbye to my nan as the mist curled around us and black mountain crows made their strange and eerie sounds.

Over the following four months, the seed continued to root and grow. I became obsessed with travelling stones. With the different ways they moved. Erratics. Ballast in the empty hold of a ship. Pebbles picked up from beaches and taken home. Emeralds, rubies, opals worn around our necks and on our fingers. The way plesiosaurs swallowed stones to stop them from rising when they swam underwater. Animals and birds that swallow stones to aid digestion – chickens, crocodiles, ostriches, penguins, seals, whales.

I applied for an Arts Council Grant to explore the migration habits of stones. I never for one second thought they’d go for it, which meant I had great fun applying. I had an idea that I’d make a piece of public art, that I’d collaborate with a stone carver and site a stone with words carved into it in a public place. I’d done this once before, and I liked the radical democracy of placing words in stone in public spaces – work that existed for anyone and anything.

(Aside: I grew up in the town of Street, home of Clarks shoes. The Clarks family were Quakers and philanthropists. Next to the factory entrance was a Henry Moore sculpture, Sheep Piece. Every day when I walked up and down the high street to school, I passed this sculpture. From an early age, then, it was obvious to me that art was placed in the community; it was for everyone; factory workers, children walking to school, people driving by. Art lived in the open air, it was democratic, it was essential.)

When the grant application form asked about the demand for the work I wanted to make, I wrote a long, philosophical essay about how it was a mistake to think demand could be established before work was made. I talked about creating work that would be given as a gift, quoted the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, argued that my work would be a gift to a planet that had already given me the biggest gift of all, the ground upon which I live my life.

As a mirror to their bureaucracy, I also made an accompanying booklet detailing how they should read my application, and at which point they should reference the relevant notes and attachments. I believed they were never going to fund me and so, I had nothing to lose. In response to the questions about audience, I argued that my audience couldn’t really be counted if I made work that was sited out of doors as it included insects, birds, breezes, people, rain, sunshine, the moon, thunder, lightning. How do you count the rain? I asked. In response to a question about duration, I suggested that if I had words carved into slate the probable length of the piece of work would be around 300 years.

I’ve always been a dreamer, an idealist. And, all those years ago, this was something the Arts Council valued. They said yes, and gave me an Individual Artist’s Award that was enough to live on for a year.

I have been curating this project, The Migration Habits of Stones, for 16 years now and it’s not over yet. I’ve made five stones with words carved into them by the letter carver Alec Peever and sited them in different places around the world. I’ve made an audio-diary for the radio about a stone I took to Australia. I have even talked at the Geological Society, the heart of geological science, about this work. It was here that Bryan Lovell, who was president of the Society at that time, took me to one side and confided that science could take us so far in the understanding of rocks and stones, but it was poets who could take us further, who could take us into the hearts of them.

And stones moved silently…

‘The mode of perceiving nature, under the rule of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical degradation of, nature.’ – Marx and Engels

And stones moved silently across the world
hurled into an empty ship’s weightless hold
folded into a glacier’s freezing mound,
quick-pocketed by tourists and children
with an eye for things shiny and round.

Bound for other lands stones sailed without papers
traffickers in freedom crossing borders
with no regard for guards, guard dogs
or guns. Dumb as the tongueless
their acts alone sounded the long, low cry.

Each stone carried centuries of weight
and meaning. Ballast from Bristol belly-up
in New York’s East river, erratics paused
on the slopes of Cader Idris, fingers of quartz
startling my window sill – all of them travelled

from the place where they began, where we might
have said they belonged. Migrating past line,
border, boundary, their movements a constellation
of questions; where is home, what is home,
and who in this world can claim land as their own?

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE
Migrating stone number 4′, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Alyson Hallett. Iona.
AH-85 (1)
Migrating stone number 5′, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Peter Stone. This stone is currently located in Los Angeles where it will begin to migrate from person to person.

 

Notes:

1 – For further information about my work please visit thestonelibrary.com
2 – Both poems in this blog are from The Stone Library, published by Peterloo Poets
3 – The quote from Anaïs Nin is from her Diary (Vol. IV)
4 – The quote from W.G. Sebald is from The Emergence of Memory, Seven Stories Press (2007)
5 – This blog is an extract from a keynote talk that was delivered in five chapters. This is based on Chapter Two. The full talk will be published by Triarchy Press later this year.

Badger Dissonance

For a year, the American writer Barry Lopez pulled over whenever he passed a dead creature on the road. Animal or bird or reptile, he picked them up – sometimes he had to scrape them up – and took them away to be buried and honoured. When asked why he bothered, he said: ‘You never know. The ones you give some semblance of a burial, to whom you offer an apology, may have been like seers in a parallel culture. It is an act of respect, a technique of awareness.’


My first was a roe deer on the A75. I’d passed it already but this time it spooked me, its dead eye hooked me. I kept driving, got home, put a spade in the boot, went back. Its belly was swollen, crows had started in on the mouth. Cars were slowing, suspicious as they passed: ‘What’s he doing, bothering the roadkill?’

I dragged it down a gully, away from the road. A stream, some birch and elder, the usual cans and bottles and torn plastic. I felt seedy, like a murderer hiding the body. I dug a hole beneath a holly tree and the wind, I swear, the wind played pibroch in its branches – a lament. I tucked the deer into the hole and promised that I’d return.


In 1956, in a suburb of Chicago, Leon Festinger joined a cult. Aliens were set to destroy the planet but they, the chosen ones, would be saved. Dorothy Martin, the cult’s leader, prophesied the date, and they gathered at her house to await the end of days. This is a true story. Leon Festinger was a psychologist. He’d infiltrated the cult to find out what might happen on the off chance, the remote possibility, that there would be no death ray, no shiny UFOs come to whisk them to safety.

The sun rose and the sun set. The paparazzi of the day gathered outside the house to await the cult’s response to the non-ending of the world. When prophesies fail there’s a dissonance, when the facts clash with what we believe it creates what Festinger termed cognitive dissonance. It hurts our head and often, to soothe, we’d rather twist the facts than break our faith or hear a different story.

Dorothy Martin informed the press that she’d received a communication from the aliens, in which they told her that because of the strength of her belief, and that of her followers, because of her virtue, they, the aliens, had decided to give earth a second chance. She’d saved the world and, best of all, in the aftermath, the cult’s following continued to grow. Cognitive dissonance – how we’ll avoid it, how we’ll hear only what we want to hear, and see only that which we want to see.


I killed the fox myself. Driving home late over the B729, the road empty, the night frosted and starry. A glint of green eyes and then a bump and braking fast, and running back.

The fox was surprised, sprawled awkward on the road, the green fading from its eyes. I picked up its hot fox body and put it in the back of the car and drove home slow, slack-jawed, with the windows wide open, letting in all the dark of the night. And in the morning, I buried it in the garden, offered up my hapless apology, and jumped in the car and drove to work.


In December 2012, Jyoti Singh got on a bus in New Delhi. She was beaten and raped on the bus and died a few days later from her injuries. That same week, my wife found a hare on the road and carried it home. These are her words:

I’m carrying the hare along the road. One of its back legs is hanging by a single tendon, blood seeping slowly in the cold. It’s early morning, but the hare is late. The school bus has taken it by surprise, for the last time. I’m holding it like a new born baby, one hand beneath its head, the other beneath its backside. It’s heavy. It weighs roughly as much as a full grown, well-fed tomcat. It’s the kind of weight I’d prefer to sling over my shoulder.

For some time now, I’ve been unable to let the images go: the bus in the semi-dark, the young woman and her male friend; the blood on the men’s hands and all their wide eyes in the confines of the vehicle; the metal air; the woman’s voice which I can hear, again and again, no matter where I look.

The body is still warm and limp, still supple, and I keep half-expecting its eyes to blink, its legs to jerk awake. I half-expect the hare to jump and charge away from me. But it doesn’t. I carry it into the woods and put it down beneath a rhododendron bush. I lay it out in such a way that the gashed leg is invisible and it looks, it really looks, as though the hare is wide alive and running. It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing this for me or for all hares.

I find a few branches and twigs and make a kind of woody tent over the body. I don’t do this for other roadkill, but I’ve been watching the hares all year – there’s a pair. Or there was. They circle the house like sentinels, beginning on the eastern side with the sun and working their way round through the orchard, past the hen-run and into the woods. I watch them through the windows, their black-tipped ears, their long, powerful hind-legs that work like suspension coils, easing the body up and forward, down and forward, perpetually sprung; ready, I supposed, for the unexpected.

By now it’s a familiar story. The woman with a young, smiling face and soft skin. Her softness in the last light of the evening. All the shouting men, their mouths, their drenched clothes.

It’s a small back road with little traffic, but the school bus passes twice a day and the driver doesn’t mean to hit it. He’s late and the kids are waiting, out in the cold on a corner of turf.

I stroke its long ears back against its head, stroke its fine coat, white belly, small face. Hares have kinetic skulls – they’re jointed – which allows for a degree of movement between the front and back sections. It helps absorb the force of impact as the hare strikes the ground.

The iron bar. The shadow faces. The quiet glistening of the steering wheel, an empty glass bottle, an eye.

 

Badger came last. I found it slumped on a humpback bridge not far from home. It was ill-shaped, greasy. More half-filled sack than badger. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the area, dead or alive. It’s dairy country, and even though they’re protected, and though there’s no cull proposed for Scotland, the farmers quietly ensure an absence of badgers. Because badgers are dissonant: they contradict the story our farmers like to hear – about how they’re in charge, how they have the right to protect the herd, for all our sakes.

This one had no need of the cull. No need for shotgun pellets or terriers at bay. Its head had been crushed beneath the wheels of more than one car. So much so that when I dug up the bones a year later, I thought the skull had been stolen, until I noticed the fragments: the curve of an eye socket, a shattered jaw.

Despite the smell and the flies, I carried it home, hands clasping a protective loop, its broken head at my heart.

 

There’s no template for making sense of this. In her poem ‘Frontier County’ Karen Solie says that ‘our separateness / among separate things unites us: a violent wonder / at convergence.’ But badgers are dissonant, and so are the foxes and hares and the roe deer, and I’m sorry, my dears, but there’s little wonder this time, only violence and forgetting, so that we really don’t see the rags of fur and tattered feathers on the roads, the splinters of bone in the verges. We don’t see the congealed blood, like dark blisters, on the tarmac.

Grief is a vessel, a conduit for the living and for the dead. By reflecting on the lives and deaths of these creatures, by honouring them, perhaps we help to carry them home.

 

Hare Shrine

Badger Dissonance was written and performed by Dougie Strang, with the exception of ‘Hare’, which is from a prose poem by Em Strang. It was performed on the opening night of In Other Tongues with musical and sung accompaniment by Kayne Coy. The performance included the creation of a shrine to each of the animals. Barry Lopez is quoted from his essay ‘Apologia’ (University of Georgia Press, 1998). Karen Solie is quoted from her poem ‘Frontier Country’, which appears in the collection Pigeon (Anansi Press, 2009).

Em Strang is a poet. Her collection Bird Woman, which includes ‘Hare’, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize and is available in the Dark Mountain Online Shop. Kayne Coy is a singer, musician, and Gaelic scholar.