I hope you’re well and keeping safe.

Virtual Geopoetics Event
Saturday 7 November 2020 from 1 pm to 5 pm

Please register now for our virtual Geopoetics Event on Saturday 7 November which is our main event this year. It will include music from Ada Francis, our Annual General Meeting at 1.15 pm (agenda and papers will be sent to those who register) and the Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture by Richard Roberts at 3 pm. At our AGM we will be discussing plans for our next conference and a series of online geopoetics talks and discussions in 2021. There are only 100 places which are filling up fast and will be allocated on a ‘first come’ basis. Full programme details and Register here!

Ada Francis is a singer, songwriter and harpist whose band Lyras has just released its first single, ‘Don’t Keep Me Awake’.

Geopoetics in a time of catastrophic crisis

We are living in what for the West, Europe, Anglo-America – and Scotland – is a time of apparently unprecedented crisis. This is not a singularity, but a complex interpenetration of crises, environmental, economic and societal, now greatly intensified by the global Covic-19 pandemic. On a mythic level this situation merits characterisation as a time of judgement and decision (κρισις), and even apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις). What in such a context does Geopoetics have to offer as a basis for reflection and guidance for the conduct of a small country beset by multiple challenges? Scotland has nurtured both the birth of political economy in the thought of the illustrious Adam Smith, and its counterpoise in a respect for the contingent particularity of the natural world in human ecology and geopoetics that extends (inter alia) from Duns Scotus through Patrick Geddes to Hugh MacDiarmid and Kenneth White.

We shall outline geopoetic traditions, touch upon antecedents of the present crisis, and then crystallise the acceleration of recent transformations and the emergent categories of the virtual and the real. This lecture is framed by allusions to Hugh MacDiarmid’s great poem, On a Raised Beach. This austere epic confronts humanity with the intransigence of the rocks, yet it implies a union between the microcosm of the grasped pebble and the macrocosm of the Earth. How such a conjunction might be achieved without the destruction of the renewed object of love, Nature itself, will draw us into the anthropology of shamanism and its latent possibilities.

Richard H. Roberts (Prof.) is an Honorary Fellow, New College, University of Edinburgh.

ISSUE 8

The Dark Days/Aurum by Jane Kelly from Part Two of Stravaig#8

The bumper issue of our online journal Stravaig#8 can be read on these links. The Ecological and Climate Emergency is extremely urgent and green actions to create a new normal rather than returning to the old one are essential. The poems, essays and art that reflect this in the journal are a great read.

 READ PART ONE HERE.
&

 PART TWO HERE
&
PART THREE HERE

The theme of Stravaig#9 will be discussed and decided on at our AGM on 7 November. Please send us your suggestions for our next theme ASAP e.g. on our Facebook page here or Twitter here. The call for submissions will go out in November 2020 with a deadline of 31 January 2021.

Northwords Now

Don’t forget you can also read the current and back issues of Northwords Now, the free literary magazine of the North, online here. Highly recommended for poetry, short stories and reviews.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding 

James Murray-White took part in our Wiston Weekend Conference last year and has an essay you can read in Stravaig#8 Part One on the need for rewilding. He has set up an active Facebook Group to campaign which now has over 12,800 members. More details are here if you would like to join the group and also here to apply for oak saplings to plant all over Britain: www.savetheoaks.org.

Action on the Climate Emergency depends on how the American people vote next week.

Member Spotlight

Dorothy Whitaker B.A. Fine Art (Drawing & Painting) Glasgow School of Art

Born in Partick in Glasgow in 1944, I taught Art in Glasgow, Ghana, Perth (Australia) and England and have had Exhibitions of my work in all of those countries. I lived for a time on the Island of Luing in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, but only discovered Slate, Sea & Sky by Norman Bissell many years later. This inspired me to a deep interest in Geopoetics, with that feeling of connection to the Earth and the Environment, and with the contributions of thoughtful members who have similar concerns. These apocalyptic times we are living through inspire my strong political feelings which I express in cartoon form of drawings, but I also work on private painting commissions and book illustrations. You can see more of my political cartoons at Dorothy Politics.

COVID-19 Funding for Artists

The Creative Scotland Hardship Fund for Creative Freelancers of £5 million which opened this week was 60% subscribed within hours and was paused until 12 noon on 10 November when the Screen Scotland Hardship Fund will reopen as well. However, the Creative Scotland Open Fund: Sustaining Creative Development can be applied for and, despite the lengthy application form, more writers and other artists are being encouraged to do so. Useful advice about the application process from the Creative Scotland Literature team is here.

 

Geopoetry 2020 on National Poetry Day on 1 October was a huge success with 45 geologists, poets and others from all over the world taking part all day and 400 people registered to attend. The whole event was recorded and can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/Geopoetry20record. My illustrated talk on geopoetics and geopoetry runs from 4 hours 54 minutes in until 5 hours 9 minutes and has 19 slides about geopoetics. A book of the contributions is in preparation.

Leela Soma’s virtual book launch of Murder at the Mela takes place on Wednesday 4 November at 7 pm. See further details about her book below and book your place here.

 

To celebrate the paperback launch of Barnhill, join me and Mandy Haggith on Tuesday 17 November at 6 pm as we discuss the creative process of writing a novel based on true historical events. Full details and book early here.

The popular exhibition of the work of the great Glasgow photographer Oscar Marzaroli continues until 20 December at Street Level Photoworks, 103 Trongate, Glasgow. Open 12-5 pm from Thursday – Sunday. Find out more here.

BOOKS TO ENJOY

It’s not too early to start buying books as Christmas gifts direct from authors, publishers and your local bookshop. Here are some we recommend:

The Vanishing World of The Islandman: Narrative and Nostalgia by Mairéad Nic Craith focuses on Tomás Ó Criomhthain, a writer on a small Irish-speaking island community off the west coast of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. Mairéad probes the appeal of an “ordinary” island fisherman’s century-old life story to readers in several European languages. Tomás’s memoir was written in Irish Gaelic and portrayed an authentic, “slow”, precarious lifestyle of an island community that has since been evacuated and is often compared with St Kilda. Through the overlapping frames of literary analysis, archival work, interviews and ethnographic examination, nostalgia emerges and re-emerges as a central theme, expressed in different ways by the young Irish state, by Irish-American descendants of Blasket Islanders in the US today, by anthropologists, and beyond. The book is available in paperback or as a kindle version here.

In this eagerly awaited addition to Tartan Noir, Glasgow’s first Asian DI joins the ranks of great fictional Scottish detectives. Alok Patel is thrown in at the deep end as a newly promoted DI with his first investigation, the brutal murder of an Asian woman at Glasgow’s Mela Festival. Facing prejudice from his work colleagues and suspicion from the Asian community, Patel struggles to balance the pressures of his rank, relationships, and racism. This murder-mystery explores tensions among Glasgow’s communities which threaten to boil over when another body turns up. Whether fuelled by revenge or rivalry, Patel must examine a growing list of suspects and get to the bottom of the murders. Order it here.

Set in Lanarkshire and Argyll after an apocalyptic pandemic, this is a story about home, family, and community, and re-establishing our relationship with the environment. Other themes are language, gender and social class. You can read an extract from it, and read more about it and about Carol on her website www.carolmckay.co.uk/books.

Alastair McIntosh has a new book out from Birlinn which takes a balanced look at the science of the climate crisis and the need to restore a sense of community if we are to overcome it.  He discusses it here with Stuart Kelly at the Wigtown Book Festival.

American member John Lane’s new novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day in a deep river bottom in a mythical Piedmont county, Morgan, South Carolina, a creation carried over from his first novel, the award-winning FATE MORELAND’S WIDOW. The story is told from four perspectives on the possible death and certain disappearance of Old Doc, an 85-year-old land owner/deer hunter, and turns into a search for the truth in the deep woods.

My review of John Rodden’s excellent Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy is on the Orwell Society website here and my virtual Creative Conversation with Sarah Armstrong, Angus Peter Campbell and Colin Herd about writing the past in the present is hereBarnhill is now out in paperback and signed copies are available from me and unsigned copies from Luath Press who have reduced the price of the hardback to £9.99.

Members of The International Institute of Geopoetics including Kenneth and Marie-Claude White.

The website of the International Institute of Geopoetics contains 8 Founding Texts of Geopoetics by Kenneth White which are well worth reading. They include The Great Field of Geopoetics, On the Highway of History, Geopoetics – A Scientific approach, The Atlantic Shore – A letter on the origin of geopoetics and Geopoetics – A Philosophical Approach. There is also lots more to read about Kenneth White on his own website.

A warm welcome to all new and renewing members who have recently joined the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. By joining and renewing you are supporting the development of geopoetics and enabling us to respond to the growing interest in geopoetics worldwide. If you wish, we can include a page about you in our Members’ Pages on our website if you send me your content and some images.

New members will receive free copies of Grounding a World: Essays on the Work of Kenneth White rrp £9.95.

Annual membership costs £10 waged / £5 unwaged and is renewable one year after you first join.

Read more about membership here.

Download a membership form here.

If you have news of events, activities, books, blogs, websites and exhibitions etc which you think might be of interest to geopoetics-minded people, please let us know.

STAY SAFE SAVE LIVES

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23. July 2017 · Comments Off on Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell – Norman Bissell · Categories: Expressing the Earth · Tags: , , , , ,

Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell

Norman Bissell

So, what is Geopoetics? I suppose the simplest answer is: look around you.

It’s about creative people: writers, musicians, storytellers, visual artists, geologists, ethnologists, botanists, ornithologists, geographers, conservationists, researchers and people who care about the future of the planet, coming together to discuss our common ground and to express the Earth in whatever creative ways we wish.

I’d like to thank you all for taking part and welcome you to Argyll on behalf of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Particularly those of you who’ve come all the way from Brazil, USA, Switzerland and Italy as well as England, Wales and Scotland.

Geopoetics involves expressing the Earth in a variety of ways – for example, through oral expression, writing, painting, photography, film making, music, geology, geography, other sciences, philosophy, combinations of art forms and of the arts, sciences and thinking. By its very nature it is trans-disciplinary in its approach as a synthesis of ideas and practices, and lends itself to collaborations between artists, scientists and thinkers of many different kinds. That is why our conference programme emphasises our creative responses, and provides space and time for everyone to create new work of all kinds, some of which we hope will subsequently be published in our online journal Stravaig which features essays, poems and artwork on our website www.geopoetics.org.uk and will be made available in other ways.

But what is it we have in common that brings us here?

Geopoetics would suggest it is various things. It is not least a shared concern for the planet, which means putting the Earth at the centre of our experience. It can involve developing a heightened awareness of the world of which we are part and using of all of our senses and knowledge in approaching the world, something that my poem ‘When You Go Out’ tries to express.

 

When You Go Out

When you go out into the world
try to use all your senses
touch and taste wild thyme
smell hawthorn and kelp
watch herring gulls soar
listen to the sound of the sea
above all open your mind
and who knows what you will find.

 

So, geopoetics is an approach to the world, a way of being in the world, as well as a world outlook. It seeks to overcome the separation of mind and body and of human beings from the more than human world. It involves learning from others who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’, as Kenneth White calls it, to find a new approach to thinking and living, for example, ‘outgoers’ or ‘intellectual nomads’ like Henry Thoreau, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Geddes, Joan Eardley, Alexander von Humboldt, Kenneth White, and many others.

It has led to a network of Geopoetics Centres with a shared project to develop our understanding of geopoetics and apply it in different fields of research and creative work. There are such Centres in Quebec in Canada, different parts of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Chile and New Caledonia. The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, which was founded on Burns Night in Edinburgh in 1995, has attracted members from England, USA, Morocco, Germany, Poland and Sweden as well as different parts of Scotland. Geopoetics is truly a trans-national movement.

Geopoetics seeks to open up the possibility of radical cultural renewal for us as individuals and for society as a whole. It could be considered a wave-and-wind philosophy and this part of the world is a fruitful and wonderful place to develop it.

On the face of it, George Orwell and geopoetics are strange bedfellows. Orwell was one of the finest political writers of the twentieth century, he attempted to turn political writing into an art, and he well-nigh killed himself writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Isle of Jura, which you can see from outside here in Ellenabeich, to warn the world about the dangers of totalitarian dictatorships. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have sold over 40 million copies between them and, as you will know, Nineteen Eighty-Four became a best seller again this year with the election of Donald Trump as America’s President.

Orwell was a fascinating, complex, contradictory character who as well as being a politically-driven author, was also a naturalist who yearned for the ‘Golden Country’ of his childhood and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible when living on Jura and before that in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire.

He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, but was brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. He loved playing outdoors where he exercised the most important attribute any child can have – he was inquisitive about everything he came across.

In the summer of 1930 he tutored some boys in Southwold and took them on long walks in the country. One of them, Richard Peters, says in the book Orwell Remembered, published in 1984:

He was a mine of information on birds, animals, and the heroes of boys’ magazines. Yet he never made us feel that he knew our world better than we knew it ourselves. …

His attitude to animals and birds was rather like his attitude to children. He was at home with them. He seemed to know everything about them and found them amusing and interesting. … He infused interest and adventure into everything we did with him just because of his own interest in it. Walking can be just a means of getting from A to B, but with him it was like a voyage with Jules Verne beneath the ocean. … A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure and matter of fact. The world we felt was just like this. And it would have been absurd not to notice all there was to see. …

Eric and Richard Blair at Canonbury Place by Vernon Richards

‘Noticing all there is to see’ is an important element of geopoetics.

From 1936 onwards Orwell and his wife Eileen rented a small cottage known as The Stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire where he kept goats, geese and chickens round the back. Their first goat was called Muriel and they named their rooster Henry Ford. Their black poodle was called Marx, and Orwell used its name as a kind of political test of visitors to see whether they thought it was named after Marks & Spencer, Karl Marx or Groucho Marx. He also grew vegetables and planted roses and many other cottage garden flowers there.

In an extract from one of his best essays, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ published in Tribune in April 1946, Orwell writes,

The pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.

As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters.

Orwell went to Jura in May 1946 to get away from London and the treadmill of journalism which made him feel “like a sucked orange”, to bring up his adopted baby son Richard after Eileen died, and to write what became Nineteen Eighty-Four. That first summer he took a break from writing and threw himself into gardening, fishing, digging peat, shooting rabbits (who kept eating his vegetables), and keeping hens, geese and later pigs.

Here are a couple of extracts from my novel I Want to Live just after he arrived at Barnhill on Jura:

Next morning George walked down to the rocks and gazed contentedly at the gently lapping water of the Sound of Jura. The sun was up and the grey-blue sea shimmered in the early morning light. To the east lay the low hills of the mainland and not another house in sight. It was even more beautiful than he had imagined during that last cold winter in the city. Where better to be than on a Hebridean island on a day such as this? This is what he had come for; to be part of all of this, to give himself space in which to think and to write, to make a new life for himself and his son here. It certainly beat the frantic grime of London. Maybe he could borrow or buy a boat from the Fletchers and do some fishing? He went back up to the garden and stripped to the waist revealing his white, scraggy body. In a shed he found a garden fork, a spade and a sieve. Someone must have done some gardening here before. He used the fork to break up the dry, stony soil and started to clear it of weeds. Soon he was sweating and panting for breath. It was back-breaking work and he hadn’t done any real manual labour since Wallington years before. He went into the kitchen to find an old towel to wipe off his sweat. At this rate it would take him most of the week to prepare the ground for sowing. Perhaps by that time the veg. seeds he’d ordered would have arrived.

…..

Barnhill on Jura looking east

Later that first week, spade in hand, George slowly dragged his sledge up a hill. Up on top he dug up peat, breathing heavily and sweating in the hot sun. He took off his shirt, his thin body looking slightly browner than before. He piled the peat up in blocks to dry and was surprised how quickly he could cut it. In not much more than an hour he’d piled up about a hundred blocks. A raven flew overhead. He felt content. He’d come to lose himself in this remote place that he’d fallen in love with. To do the kinds of things that he fondly remembered doing as a boy in Henley-on-Thames, exploring and getting to know the territory, and going fishing. But now he also wanted to see if he could live off the land and become as self-sufficient as possible, taking it all much further than he had at Wallington. Here he had peat for the fire and all the fruits of the sea at his disposal, and even the occasional gift of a deer to top up the meagre rations he was allowed by law. It was a dream he’d had for a long time and his knowledge of nature’s ways should help him to realise it. But he also needed a complete break from any serious writing. He knew what his next book would be, and had written a little of it; he’d drafted its structure years back and here he could make a proper go of it at last. But first he needed to clear his head, to rid himself of all the things that had held him back. Right now he was feeling tired, perhaps he’d overdone it. He headed back and went up to his bedroom and slept for several hours.

Orwell’s Jura diaries faithfully record all of these activities: the Argyll weather, how far on the plants and trees were, the gardening and other practical work he did, the wildlife he came across, and how many fish he and his sister Avril caught.

Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that most dystopian of novels with its oppressive atmosphere of a city falling apart and on which flying bombs might drop at any time, there are some fine lyrical passages which vividly depict the English countryside. For example, this passage descripes in Winston Smith’s dream of his mother and baby sister who disappeared when he was young:

Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.

Many of us have lost the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of our childhood and we desperately want to find them again. The ‘Golden Country’ is the dream of Winston Smith, but it’s also the dream of George Orwell who longed for the lost rural childhood he’d experienced in Edwardian England as Eric Blair. It is also the dream of our earliest experiences of the natural world that we all long for. Winston’s yearning for his lost childhood is referenced later in the book when he and Julia escape the eyes of Big Brother by going into the countryside to make love, away from spying telescreens.

Orwell’s bedroom in Barnhill on Jura

As his health deteriorated from tuberculosis, Orwell thought more and more about his childhood, the repressive prep school he went to, and his love of the countryside. The ‘Golden Country’ represented his dream of what life could be like for everyone. Even when he was dying in a London hospital he sent for his fishing rods from Barnhill since he hoped to fish in Switzerland where he was to recuperate in a sanatorium

When you boil it down, geopoetics is a way of approaching the world with heightened awareness, it’s about being open to what’s around you, using all your senses and knowledge to take it all in, and expressing it creatively. A keen interest in all things and the ability to observe them closely and express them creatively is just as applicable to politics as it is to the bird life, the Atlantic weather systems or the rugged terrain of Jura. Orwell demonstrated that truth in his life and work.

In his essay Why I Write he wrote:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

There are strong elements of geopoetics in some of Orwell’s work and in his fascination with nature. This final quotation from ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ provides another splendid example of how insight into natural phenomena and heightened political awareness can illuminate each other.

At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

It doesn’t matter where you live, this openness and alertness to nature can enable us us to be more creative and be healthier people. In places like this, the energy that comes from the Atlantic waves and winds can re-ground and re-invigorate the potentially vibrant cultures of the islands and of Scotland as a whole. By attuning our minds to the elements in such places we can renew our lives and our creative work. Over the next 3 days I hope we will all experience this and do just that.