Removing my shirt, shoes and socks, I sat in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the conifer plantation. Deer slots pierced the carpet of needles, marking it with dark earth and tracking the route that they had taken through the woods. Setting the timer on my camera, I pulled the scratchy willow of the mask over my face, waited for the beeping to end, and heard a click as my photograph was taken.
In an article in Earthlines Magazine a couple of years later, I wrote how this piece summed up my yearning to feel a part of the natural world, how I used my practice as an artist to try and escape from, or strip away, some of the social constructs that I felt limited by. I described how my feelings of exclusion from society as a child and young adult, had led to me spending more time with animals or in the woods.
Growing up ‘gay’ you get used to being excluded and disconnected, of retreating into your inner mind to shelter from outer danger. I got used to not being fully me, of making myself smaller, changing the way that I stood or talked, the things that I did, to drop below the radar…
Growing up I sought opportunities to reach out, touch, and to be touched by what I then thought of as ‘nature’. Feeding the half-wild ponies up on the hills, drawing birds in my garden, or collecting shells and feathers at the beach on visits to my Gran’s house. I was forging direct links with the lives of other non-human beings, the world beyond the society in which I found myself.
As an adult I went to art college, using my art to explore the value of embodied ways of knowing, learning about myself and the wider world through relationship, constructing body spaces out of branches, clay and cloth, and documenting walks through handmade books. Books that recorded what I heard, smelled, touched and felt.
As well as my individual artwork, I’ve also spent the last 20 years working as an artist within educational settings of one kind or another, from pre-schools to universities, museums and galleries. I’ve done it to champion the rights of others to explore their innate creativity within the context of where they live and work, coming to know their true nature (or at least gaining a glimpse of it) through the relationship between their bodies, emotions and imaginations, and the world around them.
My hope was always that if each of us were given this opportunity to develop a sense of identity through direct relationship with the complex systems of which we are a part, then we would move towards creating a society whose actions were aligned with what those systems provide. Where we could no longer act in ways that damaged the animal and plant communities on which we depend, because we experienced ourselves as continuous with them.
In 2013 in an article for AD, the magazine of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, I described this approach to working within education, and why I believed it was important.
As a society we have come to perceive ourselves as somehow separate from the ecological systems on which we depend, and despite all the evidence on the impact of our behaviour on our environment, we still find it so hard to change that behaviour. Art has a key role to play in the development of environmentally sustainable societies, by enabling us to know ourselves and our world more fully… learning though our relationship with our world and our place within it.
Looking back, the articles in Earthlines and AD are written by someone who has a clear sense of purpose and goal to work towards, while my masked self in Belonging shows how conscious I was of the distance to that goal. I had read the appropriate research and carried out my own, and I believed in the power of artful ways of learning to provide the answers.
But in the last couple of years I have experienced increasing anxiety and despair, as I have moved from a belief in the value of artful approaches to learning in the development of sustainable societies, to a realisation that sustaining what we have now is neither possible nor desirable.
I feel the pain of being complicit in the destruction of those very systems that give me life and which as a child gave me shelter
I have educated myself on the scale of the climate and ecological crisis and have experienced a shift in my sense of what the world needs from me. I feel the pain of being complicit in the destruction of those very systems that give me life and which as a child gave me shelter. I feel the grief of losing my non-human kin, and as a father and husband, the loss of a future for my family. And I feel fear as those natural systems move from being a nurturing presence to a threatening one.
Recently I’ve explored this loss and grief in a very public way, writing online, reaching out to others, and processing my thoughts and feelings in the hope of finding a new path and purpose. The predominant feeling has been that my practice needs to shift and I need to go deeper. Deeper into my practice as an artist, who pays witness to the changing world around him. An artist who develops ways of seeing beyond boundaries and who uses that practice to offer experiences to others. Perhaps, I wondered, I could offer experiences that enable us grieve together, to imagine together, and to support effective change.
What I’ve realised is that I have to somehow sit with not knowing what is coming. I can’t sit with constant grief or despair, but equally I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend everything is going to be OK either. A big part of my work as an artist working within education has been to create a safe space within which others can let go of some of their preconceptions about who they are, to step away from how they believe they need to act, and to allow what needs to emerge to rise up and make itself known. Now it’s time for me to try and do that for myself, creating a space for a similar process of transformation, or simply for being with change.
I’m used to working with not knowing within the context of education, holding this space for others to let go and connect, then returning to the familiarity and security of home. What has rocked my world these last couple of years is the realisation that the sense of safety and stability, that I come home to and rely on for sanctuary, is built on a lie. Our daily way of life, our ‘normal’ is unsustainable. The distance between our culturally constructed world, and the world experienced through embodied, artful means, either needs to be dramatically narrowed, or will collapse in on us.
I know I need to go beyond despair, beyond the Fight/Flight response caused by the trauma of losing an assumed future. A burst of adrenaline and a dose of anxiety may wake me up to what’s happening, may drive people to march and protest, but without space for quiet contemplation, there’s no opportunity to let new ways of seeing and being to emerge.
So I carry on practising as an artist, but not to sustain what we have, or with any clear idea of what I’m working towards. I do it now to keep myself sane and to stay open to what I need to do next. I do it because it’s what I do. I also understand that rushing out to ‘save the world’ is going to cause further problems. We can’t do what needs to be done without the necessary time, space and (artful) opportunities to experience that we are that world and it is us. And maybe those conditions are something that I can help to offer.
In 2017 I returned to Savernake Forest, setting up a camera trap to gain an insight into what happens when I’m not there. I wanted to leave the camera there for the forest to photograph itself, to surrender control to the beings of the forest. By layering the resulting image of a feeding fallow buck on top of Belonging, The Distance Between Us was born, and with it a new way of picturing my relationship with the world.
Together the images of the deer and myself, a visitor half clothed and half masked, speak of my previously dualistic relationship with human society and the world of animals, whilst blending them together in a new way. We are different and we are a part of the same whole. This new image connects with my need to uncover connection and relationship, to recognise the interweaving of human and non-human that has always been there and always will be. It’s not about going back to something, or rushing forward to create something new. It is about experiencing my continuity with the rest of the world through a daily practice. Not giving up or rushing forward, but letting go of fixed goals and fixed ideas of disconnection, and opening up to the connected reality that already exists.
I keep hearing that we need to act urgently, but we also need to slow down, to access ways of knowing that are about dialogue and relationship
I keep hearing that we need to act urgently, but we also need to slow down, to access ways of knowing that are about dialogue and relationship. For me the slowing down is not only to consume less, fly and drive less, but to get out of our heads and into our bodies and notice the wonder of a world that isn’t yet lost. By noticing and by reflecting on what I notice, I receive glimpses of who I really am, the me that exists within ‘nature’; the me that the world needs me to be.
I don’t have all the answers, but I am feeling my way, asking for guidance from both the human and the more than human worlds. My work is becoming more collaborative, as I open up to connecting with and responding to other artists, writers, educators and animals. I try to be more open about my anxieties for the future, both within my work and my personal life. And I find peace, still, in those quiet moments when I step out into my garden (it doesn’t have to be a forest) and notice the water droplets on the fresh green leaves, or the spiralling tendrils of the climbing French beans. Spring is here and it is wonderful, and I try not to think of what summer might bring.
Dark Mountain: Issue 15
The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.
Such a heart-felt piece of writing. Something that needs to be heard and read all across the world. We cannot continue with the status-quo and we need new leaders/writers/artists to inspire individuals to see beyond the daily bubble of the human world and make contact with the ‘more than human’. Thank you James.
This is one of the finest pieces I have ever read on DM. It sums up exactly how I and many others must feel. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.
Angela that’s lovely to read, thank you. Really good to k ow it connected with you.
I agree. Such an honest and emotional piece for me. I want to cry right now. We are in a strange place today. Alienation is at every corner. Knowing and revealing who we truly are is getting harder, more blurred. Again, why? Constant economic inequality. Thank you James for more truth, which is all we have right now.
Thank you James.
I consulted the I Ching today on a personal matter and received the hexagram K’un (2). The interpretation I use warned against “defending the past against the future”, and spoke of “yielding to the way each day is a creative awakening”. To be responsive rather than reactive: “to be receptive with our senses, not our memory/mind”.
A short while later I read your beautiful essay. A good day all round!