When did we lose our awe for life? Is there really anything more wonderful about the fictional, the fantastical or the extra-terrestrial than there is about the everyday others who inhabit our backyards? Do we really need Disney to give a voice to the nonhuman world?
In response to the deepening ecological and climate crises, a rewilding of art and culture is taking place. A key aspect of the current wave of ecologically- aware creativity is New Nature Writing (NNW). These works respond to the collapsing ecosystems, broken landscapes and lives devoid of wonder which define our age. With subjects ranging from grief (H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald) to cognitive dissonance (The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane) to motherhood (Tamago by Jami Nakamura Lin) to childhood and landscape (Kith by Jay Griffiths),
These works respond to the collapsing ecosystems, broken landscapes and lives devoid of wonder which define our age.
NNW is hard to encapsulate, but it might be described as nature writing which is more immediate and immersive. It places the author (and reader) in the centre of the experience. The writing is more directly experiential than the travelogue style of work which visits remote and exotic locations which are not accessible to all. Instead NNW is more likely to consider what Joe Moran calls ‘our everyday connections with the natural world’. Roger Deakin’s Waterlog is an early example of New Nature Writing. Rather than write about the river as something other, a destination worth visiting or an environment worth preserving, he talks about his lifelong passion for wild-swimming and literally immerses you in the river as a physical space which you can also inhabit.
Alongside New Nature Writing is a resurgence of interest in psychogeography. Developed in the mid-20th century by members of the radical political art movements the Letterist International and Situationist International, psychogeography involves a playful examination of the impact that our environment has on our psyche. Or as the Situationist Guy Debord described it, psychogeography is: ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Initially the focus was on the planned and built urban environment of cities, but subsequent years, and the new resurgence in particular, have seen the focus of psychogeography broaden to include much older, wilder, geographical locations.
One of the best places to get a feel for the new wave of psychogeography in Britain is Weird Walk magazine, which explores and re-examines the stories in the landscape of the British Isles to better understand our place in these unique times. As the editors describe it:
By walking the ancient paths, visiting the sacred sites, and immersing ourselves in the folklore and customs of these isles, we hope to fan the faint embers of magic that still smoulder in the grate and conjure that elusive temporal trackway of history and mystery, a weird walk that bypasses nostalgia and leads us back towards optimism and re-enchantment.
Just as the Situationists were keen to break down barriers between culture and everyday life, the New Nature Writers are keen to break down the barriers between nature and everyday life; and for much the same reasons. If we are not playful actors within our environment, then we risk becoming alienated both to it, and by it. Psychogeography recognises the psychological dangers of alienation which come from seeing the built environment as a backdrop, a landscape to be traversed in order to get from A to B, or an obstacle which needs to be overcome — as opposed to a space where we live out our lives as we ourselves see fit. New Nature Writing recognises the ecological alienation which stems from treating nature as something which exists outside of the human condition — as opposed to an intrinsic and utterly inseparable part of us… and we of it.
David Bramwell’s The Cult of Water (Rough Trade Books, 2019) is a perfect example of the intersection between ecologically aware psychogeography and New Nature Writing. Wandering through a South Yorkshire landscape long ravaged, blackened and denatured by Vulcan — overseer of the steel city (a statue of Vulcan sits on top of Sheffield Town Hall) and icon of the industrial revolution — Bramwell takes us on a journey, through both landscape and time, to find and reconnect with Danu, the ‘goddess of primordial waters who gave her name to the Don’; the river, of course, from which Doncaster was named.
The Don was once home to large sturgeon before industry rendered the water unfit for swathes of freshwater life (and unfit for Roger Deakin to swim in).
Vulcan, god of fire and volcanoes and master metalworker may be seen by some as a Promethean benefactor who has provided us with more comfortable and interesting lives, but at what cost? The Don was once home to large sturgeon before industry rendered the water unfit for swathes of freshwater life (and unfit for Roger Deakin to swim in). The water quality has improved in these post-industrial times, but, as any wild swimmer will tell you, our waterways are still treated as dumping grounds. The Cult of Water is a metaphor for the urgent need to reconnect with nature. To ‘rewild’ our artistic and cultural creativity so that human needs and desires are not of central importance. Industry; money; capital; growth; what value do these have when life itself is threatened?
No steel on a dead planet.
The written element of Bramwell’s work already covers the intersection between NNW and psychogeography, but the additional soundtrack and performance aspects turn it into something other than a well-observed history of the Don. It is a work of art, of magic and ritual. It is a work of cultural rewilding and what might be termed ‘psychoecology’.
The word psychoecology is usually used as a synonym for ecopsychology, a synthesis of psychology and ecology which the novelist and academic Theodore Roszak described as a: ‘synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being.’ But the phrase could also be used to describe a branch of psychogeography which engages with the non-human world in order to inspire multidisciplinary artistic creations that facilitate the rewilding of art and culture.
Modern technology has made it easier than ever to work directly in the landscape itself. I have been making electronic music using solar-powered equipment in natural and/or marginalised spaces around Doncaster for the last couple of years. Low-powered ‘grooveboxes’, more typically used for dance music, are incredibly versatile and can easily be adapted to run from 100% solar power. The synth engines offer powerful sonic diversity and the workflow allows you to spontaneously compose, record and overdub, allowing you to build relatively complex pieces outside of a traditional studio environment. The fact that they are more like instruments than computers also makes the process more tactile and performative.
I had walked the banks of the Don with David Bramwell last autumn for an article he was writing for the Guardian (‘Do the Don’, Guardian Oct 2021), so I decided to return with my audio equipment to see what I might create in the presence of Danu. The resulting piece is entitled The River and is inspired by the eddies, flows and gentle ferocity of the coursing water. But it is the act of psychoecology itself, rather than the end product, which is most rewarding. As with all creative endeavours time and awareness changes. Artists will often observe that their sense of self dissolves when they are in the creative moment. But is this not also the feeling we get when we immerse ourselves in nature and simply be? Is this why all art is ecological? Is art an attempt to capture those boundless moments?
The beauty of the butterfly is not improved by placing a pin through its corpse and mounting it in a display cabinet. No flower was made more precious by squashing it between the pages of a book. Psychoecology then, is an attempt to go beyond the need to capture, preserve or own nature. It is as celebratory as it is creative. More education than entertainment, it seeks nothing less than the total rewilding of our culture.
Calling all fresh and salt water lovers! Dark Mountain’s next How We Walk through the Fire creative workshop will focus on the element of water and take place in late July/early August All details here: https://dark-mountain.net/events/waterland/.