Geopoetics, a word coined by Kenneth White, offers a great richness, despite pessimism, global warming and ‘the war on terror’. We still have our lives: avenues opening up, for single-minded exploration, moving alone or in groups, within a vast landscape that begins locally and spreads out across the globe. The sanctity of the earth we have ignored in our impoverishment of soul, and ravaged in our greed and brute desire for power. An alienation that extends out from our own being, places in jeopardy everything else. Historically affronted by all things wild, we destroy in our attempt to neuter that which we have no control over.
I move the topic away from the particular, – a mistake. It lives in the grass blade and the ant; soil profiles and rock strata; taste of parsnips and mint; sound of crow and goldfinch; smell of rain; gravel and shale under-foot. A great richness indeed, but which may be seen only by opening our senses, our ‘doors of perception’. My own approach is on foot, with a good walking stick in my grip. Not hurrying, respectfully moving through landscape wide-awake.
I work as a nature reserve warden. As a boy I was educated in a Catholic school and left as soon as I was able, aged 15. This is pertinent to the present topic only in one question: which we were asked repeatedly during those years. “Do you have a vocation?” A mysterious notion: a lying in bed like the Biblical Samuel and the voice calling to us out of the darkness. And yet, how simple it in fact is: we are called by the thing we love. In my own case the world of nature, the world of wild things, the wild things themselves.
Down by Clacknaharry in Inverness, along the Beauly Firth: with the cries of herring gulls ringing in our ears, we scanned the choppy water in search of otter or seal, without success. A young child of about 8 spoke to us, ‘Had we seen the dolphins?’ She spoke of her love of these creatures and how lucky she was to live there. We looked where she pointed and there they were: bottle-nose dolphins cresting the waves, playful as puppies. Geopoetics is vitally alive in our response to this world. The land calls to us out of the livingness of things. However, we don’t always have to see a thing to take delight in its existence and the seals and the otters are alive within our inner seeing. We know they exist along that rugged coast. What we must not do is take them for granted.
‘Geopoetics’, how the word grows on me: earth-rock-stone-humus and the beings thereof, in all their multiplicity, and our response to them. Kenneth White refers to opening, widening, making clear, revealing and celebrating the pathways, creating, reading the signs along the trail left by our ancestors; creating new ones, by following the lands natural contours. What does the word actually mean? It is about recovering our soul-response to that which surrounds us, even in the city. Geopoetics is not just about the countryside! When we look at them, buildings cease to be mere corporate conglomerates, impersonal towers of Babel. The stone out of which they were wrought, cries out to be seen, touched and appreciated. Igneous or sedimentary, stone has a very specific history and structure. Buildings reveal too, the aesthetics revered at the time of their construction. A walk through the city is a walk through a history of values, a huge topic in itself.
Fundamentally, `geopoetics’ is about waking up to the world and may be regarded as a tree with branches reaching out in all directions, with each twig dividing into a further flowering of form and expression, offering a viable approach to a range of disciplines: from poetry to painting, from geology to geography.
Down the years the land is opened up by means of plough and pen; genius of place invoked and spoken to: flowers and birds, insects and trees, foxes and amphibians seen and taken account of, or else ignored and exploited by those blind and deaf to the qualities of spirit and feeling inherent in the world.
The word ‘poetics’ implies the study of particular things, themes, or principles, with a view to discovering the poetry at the heart of them. Geopoetics is concerned with mining for the gems hidden within the everyday sights and sounds of the landscape. My own concern is with Gaia and her offspring, with the beauty inherent in all life and what this offers in terms of my own aliveness.
As a philosophy or mode of being, Geopoetics demands engagement, active interaction with the world at hand, without gloves. Life demands no intermediary, no initiated priesthood to explain or reveal itself to us. We experience ourselves as we encounter our world. ‘All real living is meeting’, wrote Martin Buber. The heart of Buber’s philosophy being an ‘I-Thou’ reciprocity, this is a useful key to what White is alluding to. Geopoetics is essentially about presence, being, there, here, where we are. It is about being awake.
For those of us living within inner cities, it’s easy to feel bereft of wildness and we watch TV programmes and dream of the Galapagos or the Masai Mara. What I would like to see is a waking up to back-gardens, and a raising of consciousness about the patch of ground at the end of the street.