06. November 2018 · Comments Off on The Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture: Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics by Mairi McFadyen, Leith Parish Church, Sat 3 November 2018 · Categories: Expressing the Earth, geopoetics, Uncategorised · Tags: , , , , , ,

Annual Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture 2018

Mairi McFadyen

Abstract: The challenges we face today – ecological, social and political – demand new forms of consciousness, creativity and collective action. In his book The Radical Field (2007), Tony McManus outlines the world significance of geopoetics as a theory-practice for what he calls ‘radical cultural renewal.’ Inspired by his writings, Mairi will reflect on her own journey as an ethnologist and will trace the contours of an emerging praxis which finds grounds for radical hope in geopoetics. It is more necessary than ever that we gather together and continue to explore how to live on this earth in more hopeful, joyful and life-giving ways.

Download slides here: McManus Lecture Slides

Thank you to Norman Bissell and the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics for inviting me to give this lecture today. This event is also part of the Intercultural Research Centre’s Sustainable Communities Sustainable Heritage Festival, so I’d also like to thank Ullrich Kockel and Máiréad Nic Craith at the IRC for their continued support and encouragement, and to thank you all for coming along today.

For Tony McManus, who we are here celebrating today, the study of geopoetics and living a creative life were inseparable, each enriching the other. He believed passionately that geopoetics, as a world theory-practice – as an approach to thinking and living – opens the way to creativity for everyone, and can create the possibility of experiencing and expressing the world in a livelier, more perceptive way. For him, geopoetics provides the hope and the basis for the radical cultural renewal we so badly need today.

This will be a lecture in 2 parts. In the first, I will reflect on my own journey into geopoetics, exploring the potential of my own field of ethnology as an emerging creative practice. This is the topic of my essay in the Stravaig journal, so a more in-depth account of this is there if you are interested (also here).

In part 2, I want to turn to the here and now, to the Earth, and to the challenges of the future. Just this week there was a letter signed by 100 academics calling for action to halt the ecological crisis we face caused by climate breakdown. The letter reads,

“The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.”

— The Guardian, Fri 26 Oct 2018

In many ways responding to a personal need to make some sense of the utter burach in which we have found ourselves, I will reflect on where we are now, how we got here, and where we might go next. I will introduce a map for navigating our way through, how we might ‘open a world,’ finding grounds for radical hope in geopoetics.

What I am offering here are by no means answers, but rather a tentative interpretation and some unfinished thoughts from a personal perspective, searching for the right questions to ask.

PART 1: A Journey into Geopoetics

My own journey into geopoetics began a long time ago, although I did not realise it at the time. This was during my PhD research – a study of the traditional ballad, based at the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Rather than focusing on a collection of ballad ‘texts’, I was interested in the live embodied encounter of song performance: the shivers, tingles, and chills we sometimes experience listening to unaccompanied traditional song. Many of us will be able to bring to mind such an encounter – perhaps listening to live music, reading poetry or discovering visual art, being in nature, a religious experience, being part of a political movement. These are often the occasions that we become aware, if only fleetingly, that we are here, that we are together, that we are connected. Ethnologists might call this experience communitas.

As a researcher, I am interested in these heightened moments that re-frame or affirm our perception of the world and our relationship to it. A ‘heightened aesthetic experience’ is understood here not in the sense of a matter of judgement or taste, but rather – as opposed to the anaesthetic experience – as one in which our senses are operating at their peak, when we are present in the current moment with heightened awareness, when we are and fully alive.

Often, in order to make sense of our experiences, we reach for metaphor, for poetic language, to create and re-create meaning. Metaphor has poetic power precisely because it re-connects abstract thought with embodied experience, providing a grounding we often fail to see precisely because it is so pervasive and fundamental. The philosopher Mark Johnson (2007) makes the case that all metaphors are grounded in our visceral experience and explains that it is through our bodily perceptions, movements, senses and emotions that meaning becomes possible. That is to say, all aspects of meaning-making are fundamentally aesthetic.

The central question, then, is this: what is the relationship between our embodied experience and perception, and the language we use to express it? I later came to realise that is a central question of geopoetics (McManus 2007). To find an answer, my own research turned to phenomenology – a research method that attends to the affective dimension of our embodied experience; and to hermeneutics – which is concerned with how we interpret and express our subjective lived experience in and through language as part of a process of meaning-making.

In truth, I found the experience of academic research both thrilling and strangely alienating; alienating in the sense that, in such an intensely cerebral environment, I felt disconnected from my own body. I discovered that it is quite possible to grasp or comprehend a philosophical concept but not understand it, bodily. Theoretical explanations quickly become removed from lived reality and from the infinitely rich encounters that cause us to want to think more deeply about our experience in the first place. In geopoetics, I found a way to reconcile – or perhaps reconnect, in a way that made sense to me – the rigour of cerebral, analytic work with the experience of being a body in the world. For me, this is what geopoetics was first about: seeking awareness and understanding both intellectually, by developing knowledge, and sensitively, bodily, intuitively using all our senses to become ‘attuned to the world.’ I visualise geopoetics as the rigorous pursuit of clarity of thought, chasing those flashes of insight, creativity and connection, but always grounded in my embodied, aesthetic experience of being-in-the-world.

I know most of you in the room will be familiar with geopoetics, but if you’ll let me, for those of you who are not, I’ll take a wee bit of time to outline some of the key ideas, as I interpret them. The difficulty here is is that geopoetics is not linear, and it is very difficult to find a thread through in such a short talk.

Geopoetics begins, then, with a ‘radical critical analysis’ of the ‘cultural mindscape’ we find ourselves in today. Kenneth White begins by rejecting the philosophical stances which underpin what he calls the ‘Motorway of our Western civilisation’ and our modern culture. He looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave this motorway, searching for alternative ways of looking at the world, and celebrating the figure of the ‘intellectual nomad,’ the poet-thinker, the artist-philosopher.

First, White rejects Plato’s idealism, which leads to the fundamental western belief that reality is to be found somewhere other than the here and now. He rejects Aristotle’s division of the world, and our experience of it, into separate categories. Their modern derivatives are similarly rejected – the dualism in Descartes’ separation of human from nature and mind from body; rationalism, which derives from this division of subject from object; and humanism, with its Hegelian notion of historical progress and its exploitative approach to nature.

This leads White to what he calls the central debilitating problem in our culture: a failure to ‘see life whole.’ Our worldview, dominated by a mechanistic, rational science that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed, has given rise to the loss of ‘a sense of world.’ This loss is reflected in the reductionist and atomistic division of areas of knowledge into discrete categories.

Geopoetics argues for the plural need to amend the excessive damage the environment, human consciousness, and being are experiencing as a consequence of this ‘loss of world.’ In search of alternatives, White engages with non-western traditions, and with traditions of European phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger and others. Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy (1936) criticises science’s objectivism as naivety and seeks to reinstate the thinking mind as one which can perceive reality as a whole.

From this radical cultural analysis, White finds grounds for a renewal of culture. By this, he means a new cultural perspective whereby the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics, which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. ‘The real work’ he writes, consists of ‘changing the categories, grounding a new anthropology, moving towards a new experience of the earth and of life’ (White 2004, 22). Like Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological ‘radical reflection’ or Heidegger’s hermeneutic drive ‘to get back to the beginning of thought’, geopoetics requires an openness and readiness to both recognise and consciously abandon inherited concepts, philosophical assumptions and the cultural baggage of language, ideology and discourse. It is, in many ways, a process of radical unlearning. It is about decolonising the mind. A ‘new mental cartography’ White called it. A re-mapping of our relationship with the world.

Crucially, White was seeking a local grounding for this new world-view. Geopoetics is very much a place-based praxis. This is not provincial, but parochial in the most expansive sense of the word. Parochial is universal: it deals with the fundamentals. In pursuit of this ground, Geopoetics traces structures, ideas, themes, expressions, lifelines back to the archaic landscape, and forwards into future developments, with critical reflection, outside of existing systems of representation. ‘We need minds’, writes White, that that can draw the ‘significant lines together – through geography, history, culture – and open up new ways of ‘inhabiting the Earth.’

Abriachan, Loch Ness

Abriachan, Loch Ness, 30 Oct 2018

If geography means earth-writing, geopoetics can be interpreted as means world-making. It is fundamentally about creativity.

McManus writes, ‘the word ‘poetry’ in this context does not refer to the current mass of more or less formulaic statements of personal-social angst which rarely goes beyond names and words. Poetry, here, is the expression of the human mind which has reached a perception of the world which it must express.’ When the human expresses the perception of being which opens up to this philosophical mind, he is not scientist, he is not even philosopher, he is poet: poetry, writes Heidegger, ‘brings being into the light.’ This is to say that our capacity for intense perceptive experience, and the rich expression of it, is part of what it is to be human. Poetry, in this case, goes beyond the literary form to take in other forms of creativity, such oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, science. In other words, it is the natural and, potentially, universal expression of what White calls this ‘sense of world.’  The ‘poetic’, in this context, becomes synonymous with human potential for constantly ‘making the world new’ (Bachelard 1958).

I need to talk a little about this word ‘culture’ in this context. In geopoetics, ‘the fundamental question is cultural,’ but in the most expansive sense. In White’s view, culture is ‘the way human beings conceive of, work at and direct themselves.’ If ‘agri-culture means working at a field to produce the best crop,’ he writes, then ‘human culture means working at the most harmonious growth of the individual and the collective in its environment.’ In the collective sense, culture is defined as to what is essential to the group. Successful cultures cluster around a central motif, a nucleus of interest, a poetics, understood here as basic language of experience, perception and expression.

Geopoetics is conceived of as a world culture; the Earth is the central motif. Caring for the earth is a fundamental part of geopoetics – a concern that is shared by all, north south east and west.

This is not a homogenous world culture, but rather a world culture that recognises the creative relationship between humans and earth in all its diversity and particularities. White himself called gepoetics an ‘intercultural movement’ in that it not only recognises linguistic, cultural, poetic, philosophic and scientific diversity, but demands a genuine interaction among its various components. It requires genuine interaction of different worldviews, philosophies, sciences, geographies, modes of being, for the enlargement of human understanding of the diversity the cosmos offers (Hashas 2017).

It is important to remember that geopoetics began in the 1970s. Theories on postcolonialism, feminism, multiculturalism, interculturalism, secularism, liberalism, environmentalism have all developed since, and so the geopopetic project is both part of this development and an interdisciplinary contribution to it. Keeping this context in mind, geopoetics can be read as a radical call for more critique, and more ‘opening up’ against dogmatic, ideological and religious discourses. In this sense, it is a strident challenge to all colonising homogeneities. Other disciplines can, in geopoetics, find similar potential.

I want to speak briefly about my own field of Scottish ethnology here. Ethnology is a form of interdisciplinary anthropological research and practice that, at its heart, seeks to understand how we, as humans, make life meaningful. We might describe it as the study of how communities make sense of themselves to themselves in particular places through cultural memory and creative expression. Often, the focus is our relationship with the past and how we make sense of it in the present, and so historically, ethnology has been closely associated with its sister discipline of folklore and the study of local traditional culture.

Ethnology values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience and understands the importance of our ecological connection to place. Through fieldwork, it bears witness to the experience of others and reflects the manifold and diverse ways human subjectivity and experience manifests itself, a celebration and appreciation of difference and diversity. With its emphasis on drawing global insights from consciously situated perspectives (‘Wisdom sits in places,’ Basso 1996), a Scottish ethnology is one of the world anthropologies in practice.

Here in Scotland – in part – in part a response to the cultural and political context in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum and ongoing debates in arts, culture and higher education – a group of ethnologists and creative practitioners have begun to explore the potential of a ‘creative ethnology’ outwith the strictures of the university. For some, the creative potential of ethnology is about finding more imaginative ways to share our research through creative output, such as performance or creative writing; for others the potential is in its interdisciplinarity: how we engage in vital dialogue with other fields, such as ecology or the arts. For others, this is not simply a question of drawing on the creativity of the category of ‘the artist’ in collaboration; there is a sense too in which we must become artists ourselves.

I was keen to explore what a creative ethnology as a form of geopoetics might look like – the ethnologist as the figure of the poet-thinker, the artist-philosopher – and so took this question to the Expressing the Earth conference in 2017 (this, as I mentioned, is the topic of my essay in Stravaig). Ullrich Kockel – whose writing has been an inspiration to me – and I later co-wrote a chapter situating a Scottish creative ethnology in a European context, drawing on the rich wells of tradition and critical thought in this place. We evoke the metaphor of Nan Shepherd’s ‘Living Mountain’ – the topic of last year’s annual lecture ; Hamish Henderson’s metaphor of the ‘Carrying Stream’ – an affirmation of the living current of intergenerational transmission; and also the legacy of Patrick Geddes. Described variously as a Victorian polymath and ‘synthesising generalist,’ Geddes was looking for connections and patterns, and the intellectual tools to bring disparate ideas into relation, cultivating what he called ‘sympathy, synthesis and synergy. I have written about this elsewhere.

In my own view, an ethnological sensibility or being-in-the-world speaks to the need for an activist orientation in practice.

“Beyond profession, my concern has been to find and follow a calling, a deeper voice. It finds its roots in who I am and a sense of purpose I have on earth ”

— Lederach 2005

Ullrich has observed that, in his experience, many of us working in this field are motivated by concerns ‘not unlike those that have inspired the work of artists, poets, theologians and campaigners’ (2010). This struck a chord with me. These shared concerns might include a desire to create and to connect, to seek and share knowledge, to raise awareness, to challenge the use of power, to bring people together, to search for meaning, to imagine and make manifest new ways of thinking and being. Ullrich also introduced to me the ideas of Joseph Beuys, an important figure to geopoetics. His famous words ‘every man is an artist’ does not claim that everyone can ‘be an artist’ in a conventional sense; rather it is evoking the power of the human body to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. Beuys believed that we must bring our whole selves – our intuition and imagination, as well as our rational thinking, our will – to a conscious, active participation in culture, a form of what he called ‘social sculpture.’

“As we come to terms with the fact that [we] make, and are made by, the field that [we] study, [we] have a choice: either retreat into the safe realm of pure cultural theory, or get to grips with the messy business of trying to navigate the morphogenetic cultural field as it changes shape under [our] very hands.”

— Kockel 2011

My point here is that, while geopoetics may appear to be largely a personal and existential quest, it cannot be only so. Simon Springer, in an article called ‘Earth Writing,’ (2017) writes that geopoetics demands praxis. He calls for a theoretically informed, critically reflective scholar-activism. In defence of any anti-intellectual accusation of ‘esotericism,’ which is a charge often levelled, he argues passionately that we need theory for meaningful action as much we need meaningful action to refine our theories.

A geopoetic worldview, he writes, allows us to ‘replace the hubris that so often attaches itself to academia, with a modesty and humility that brings us into greater contact with the world.’ As ‘nomads of the present’ (Melucci 1989), we venture into the ‘unchartable terrain that is the mystery of life.’ As poet-thinkers, we acknowledge the ‘hidden enfolded immensities,’ ‘sheer physical messiness,’ and the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’ that can never be captured, pinned down, or fully understood.

When we approach theory-practice with an open, geopoetic mind that ‘expresses reality in different ways … [through] combinations of different art forms,’ a material space for radical transformation might follow. ‘Possibility becomes possible’ when ‘the scope of theory and the hope of creativity collide in kaleidoscope’ (Springer 2017).

I want to give the final words of part 1 to Tony McManus. He believed that

“Geopoetics holds out not just the possibility of, but the necessity for the fully human being as one who strives towards perceptive awareness of the world through experience, thought and action and who strives also to express that sense of world in his/her life and thought.”

— McManus n.d

In a sense, this is what I am striving for now, at the beginning of a journey towards an emerging geopoetic praxis.

PART 2: Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics

This part of my lecture really is an attempt to respond to the here and now, although these thoughts are very much unfinished.

We are living through a very strange moment in human history, in disturbing and troubling times. We face huge challenges: ecological and climate breakdown as a consequence of global capitalism and its environmental destruction; challenges to globalisation with the rise of right-wing populism and the retreat into entrenched ethnicities, Brexit, Trump, Brazil; Big Data… Our daily news cycle is a nightmare. Every conversation I seem to have these days finds its way back to this sense of disbelief, hopelessness, frustration, despair. All of these discussions hold up a mirror to our collective consciousness. In the face of it all, it’s an opportunity for reflection, and to ask again, why we are here, what does it mean to be alive? What can we do, how can we act? Where can we rediscover purpose, collectively?

I was born in the 1980s. Since that time, the ascendant and dominant neoliberal agenda of globalisation has deeply transformed the material conditions of our world. Capitalism entered a new phase with the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the UK and the United States. Our society today has been shaped by ideologies and epistemologies underpinned by anthropocentric, hetero-patriarchal, Euro/Western-centric, colonial and capitalist systems of power. This has brought with it devastating social, political and ecological effects, leaving many people deeply dissatisfied, estranged and disempowered and may yet bring about our ultimate destruction.

It is nothing short of cultural invasion on a global scale.

Our collective priorities are shaped not by a desire to ‘see life whole’ but by a mechanistic, atomistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed. Within this paradigm, macroeconomics, geopolitics and capital are valorised  and social systems are built on a linear, machine-like approach. In such an economic system, every thing (and everyone and everywhere) becomes disposable, seen simply in terms of resources at hand, ready for exploitation, for profit. In this world, people are expected to make sacrifices for profit-margin, to accept environmental damage that threatens future generations, often for no reward beyond ‘improved economic indicators.’

In the face of such contemporary hegemonic forces, every aspect of our lives has been colonised, commodified, from birth to death. Our local and national government, cultural institutions, organisations, education system, universities have all been totally captured by this way of thinking. This reform of the public sector has been called the ‘era of New Public Management’ or NPM, where managerial practices used to run businesses are applied to the public sector. It is an ideology that many of us have been complicit in promoting, with or without choice, knowingly or unknowingly.

I can only speak from my own experience of work, in universities and in arts and cultural administration. Higher education and research have been forced to conform to the norms of ‘efficiency, value for money, customer service and performance targets’ where ‘everything has come to depend on audits and metric standards of so-called quality assessment (student satisfaction, pass rates, league tables etc.)’ (Winkler 2018). Academics have little, if any, say on whether departments should continue to exist, what degrees and courses should be on offer and even what kind of assessment methods should be used. Researchers are forced into competition with an ever-tighter funding regime that values short-term instrumental usefulness rather than deep, long-term understanding. This colonisation of higher education by neoliberalism is an absolute assault on academic freedom. We see the co-option of radical language. The casualisation and precarity of the workforce. And yet, within this system, there are wonderful people trying to do wonderful things.

Our arts and cultural policy, again, has been totally colonised, not by one perceived nationality over another (as in Alastair Gray’s now infamous essay of 2013, ‘Settlers and Colonists,’ a different argument altogether), but rather by the ideology of the ‘creative industries.’ This is defined by in the UK Government’s 2001 ‘Creative Industries Mapping Document’ as ‘the potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.’ Creative ‘production’ is about targets and outcomes, ‘value for money,’ anathema to the creative process. This name-making, logo-driven culture of neoliberalism demands of artists to ‘be a brand,’ to be a business, to ‘be our own export.’ Our role as cultural workers is to outflank or outmaneover the system, to be creative and agile, and yet all too often we are serving the very system that we seek to undermine, chained by our branded lanyards. Yet again, within this system, despite this system – many people still manage to create wonderful work and do wonderful things.

But at what cost?

It does not have to be this way. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014) writes,

“It’s a habit of mind. As such, it can be changed. Except that most of the time we cannot see this, because we are “locked in, politically, physically and culturally” to the world that capital has made.”

Geopoetics calls for decolonisation: of the mind, of our ideologies and our institutions, of our everyday lives. It calls for resistance and transformation.

Geopoetics reaches for a world culture where the Earth is the central concern. The point I am trying to make here is that our economic system and climate crisis are fundamentally linked.

Our current predicament has led some commentators to describe our time as a new geological era shaped by humans – the Anthropocene (Hamilton et al, 2015). In their recent report, the IPCC have stated we have twenty years before a global disaster is upon us due to the effects of global heating and climate breakdown. This was shortly followed by the WWF’s Living Planet report with 60% of species wiped out since 1970, as a direct consequence of human consumption. This past week, as I mentioned earlier, a letter was sent to Parliament demanding action on climate breakdown. On Wednesday, we saw the launch of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ in London – an act of civil disobedience where 15 people were arrested for protesting the government’s response to climate tragedy.

Hundreds of people showed up for a symbolic act of #ExtinctionRebellion against the UK government last week, accusing it of inaction in the face of #climate breakdown and ecological crisis. Source: DESMOGUK 

“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.”

— The Guardian, Fri 26 Oct 2018

Climate breakdown is expression of a mechanistic worldview, an epistemology of conquest and an ideology of global capital – the whole point of which is to find resources and exploit them. Climate breakdown is an indicator of just how far our human psyche and culture has become divorced from our natural habitat. It is the conclusion of a culture and a worldview that separates man from nature, that ‘fails to see life whole.’ Our economy is destroying the natural basis of life. This the endgame: it is the very expression of the loss of ‘a sense of world.’

The West’s response to these environmental issues, since the 1970s, have been individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic – responses which have failed to solve the problem (Bendell 2018). If we are to try to change the direction of our own destruction, we need to challenge the systems and structures that dominate our existence. To achieve such a vision, we need a fundamental transformation of our lives and an extensive cultural change: a radical cultural renewal.

Arguments about climate breakdown are really arguments about how and what we can think.

The significance of these devastating statistics can be difficult to grasp. The ecological philosopher Timothy Morton calls climate breakdown a ‘hyperobject’ – a thing that surrounds us, envelops us and entangles us, but that is too big to see in in its entirety (2013). Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things – a melting ice sheet, a dying sea. Hyperobjects happen everywhere at once, but we can only experience them in the local environment.

I read a book recently, James Bridle’s The New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2018), a brilliant book – as illuminating as it is unsettling – in which I discovered an alarming fact: carbon dioxide is literally dumming us down. If C02 levels reach 1000 parts per million, our human cognitive abilities drop by 21%.

“C02 clouds the mind: it directly degrades our ability to think clearly, and we are walling it into our places of education and pumping it into the atmosphere. The crisis of climate breakdown is a crisis of the mind, a crisis of though, a crisis in our ability to think another way to be. Soon, we shall not be able to think at all.”

— Bridle 2018

In July of this year, academic Jem Bendell published a paper called Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy in which he offers a new framing for beginning to make sense of what we face. Bendell, himself a Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, believes that best-available science says that there is an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change, a process which has already started, and a process of which many mainstream sustainability professionals are in denial. This situation has led others to conclude that we should be exploring how to live in an unstable post-Sustainability situation, exploring post-growth or degrowth models. The current neoliberal system offers little hope for the kind of changes that will be needed and, further, it has the capacity to worsen the harm done to the Earth, and to impose greater suffering and oppression on the many in order to protect the power and wealth of the few.

As an invitation to enter a dialogue, Bendell offers Deep Adaptation as a framework for communities to explore how they might to prepare for collapse, both locally and globally (I will outline this below). This framework has already influenced community dialogue on climate change in Britain in the past two years, including in Peterborough and Newcastle, as well as being used by the Dark Mountain network which many of you will be familiar with. There are the beginnings of a movement in Scotland too. Such an approach is seriously under-discussed because it has hitherto been taboo.

Bendell recognises that this is a huge agenda that must involve diverse disciplines. Deep Adaption calls on nothing short of a world approach. There is much that geopoetics could contribute to such a framework – and perhaps we could discuss this later.

In pursuit of a conceptual map of Deep Adaptation, Bendell talks in terms of resilience, relinquishment and restoration. Of course, each of these words has different meanings in different contexts and discourses, but for the purposes of this framework, they are understood as follows:

Resilience is about developing our capacities to deal with change. The resilience of human societies is the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. We need to think again, switch our mindsets. What do we really want to keep? What can we draw on to help us through? The question, however, is not just about what we want to keep or preserve, but what are we willing to give up, to let go? This is relinquishment. It is about giving up expectations for certain types of consumption, assets, beliefs. This includes material possessions, ways of life, cultural patterns, patterns of behaviours. The current discourse of ‘sustainability’ might see this as defeatist, but it can be re-framed as a positive action. Finally, restoration. This is about finding ways to restore life and community, something I’ll come back to at the end of the talk. Examples include re-wilding and re-people-ing landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play and entertainment, and increased community-level productivity and support (Bendell 2018).

I want to discuss the second of these for a moment: relinquishment. In order to find new ways of thinking and living – of survival – we are going to have to let go of a whole lot of things. This is a question I have been asking of myself in recent months. In many ways it is a difficult personal process; it involves a something of a deconstruction of the self, of a previously held sense of identity and expectations. Who am I and how am I in the world? What is my role? What am I willing (or not) to be complicit in? How (and where) do I want to live? What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to give up, to let go of?

For me, this has involved some difficult life choices, and decisions to be made – both intellectually, critically, and sensitively, trusting my body. It involves both navigating and embracing tensions, contradictions and conflicts of trying to live as an activist (Erskine 2014). I am still in the midst of this unfinished process. The further I explore, it becomes increasingly difficult to work on projects that do not have some relevance to this wider interdisciplinary framework, this bigger picture.

As researchers, artists, writers, teachers, scientists, creative practitioners, we have an opportunity – some would say an obligation, a responsibility – not just to do what is expected by our employers and/or the norms of our profession, but also to reflect on the relevance of our work within wider society, and for the world. We might ask, from what position can we effect most change? Where are the pockets of resistance? Where are the openings, pressure points, connections, networks? Where are the spaces for freedom of thought, action, imagination and transformation? Where are the spaces for celebration and disruption? How do we connect and support each other? In my own wanderings, I have found many people who are desperate to have this conversation.

Geopoetics looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation.’ Many of us today are ‘nomads of the present’ (Melucci 1989), having left, in part, mainstream society, not knowing where we are heading but searching for what have not yet seen. Very quickly we might shed concern for conforming to the status quo and any desire for status, recognition or plaudits. Life becomes about finding and creating supportive networks and counter-cultural spaces in which individuals and groups can connect, think and act.

While this picture I have painted is bleak, we do not yet know what the future holds. There are opportunities for change and for alternative visions to emerge that may offer new hope. In geopoetics we find an optimistic project for the future, a grounds for radical hope, despite the deep anguish that lies behind it.

We need to understand and embrace our unfinishedness. To understand that we are always unfinished gives us radical hope that things can change, that transformation is still possible. Actvist Chris Erskine writes that this is a question of faith – not in a religious sense, but in the sense that ‘we must carry hope for things not yet manifest’ (2014).

“The body is always in a sense unfinished, open-ended, always capable of more creative activity than what it may be manifesting right now. ”

— Eagleton 2011

We each embody poetic power – the power of the human body to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. The power to make the world new. We must bring our whole selves – our intuition and imagination, as well as our rational thinking, our will – to a conscious, active participation in culture. David Harvey, in his book Spaces of Hope, a study on globalisation and the body, writes,

“There is a time and place in the ceaseless human endeavour to change the world, when alternative visions, no matter how fantastic, provide the grist for shaping powerful political forces for change”

—  Harvey 2001

This idea of geopoetics, of ‘world-making’ has relevance for movement building; for creating and making manifest cultural renewal.

“At surface level, [cultural renewal] is a question of politics. At a deeper level, it’s a question of poetics…If you get politics and poetics coming together, you can begin to think that you’ve got something like a live, lasting culture.”

— White 2004 (my emphasis)

Lastly, I want to talk about this idea of restoration. Restoring a live, lasting culture. We might think of this, in geopoetic terms, as finding a new ground. Restoring life and community. Recovering ‘a sense of world.’ Seeing life whole. To be fully human, to be fully alive.

What practices might serve us, in advancing this collective-life-affirming cause? This might be to rediscover forgotten attitudes and approaches to life: ways of being, living, making, creating, crafting, eating. Living simply, living lightly. How did people celebrate and make meaning, prior to this hydrocarbon civilisation? What can we bring back to help us through this? Vital to this is conviviality. In conviviality, writes, Ian Wight, there is possibility. Anthropologist Edith Turner describes communitas as ‘collective joy’ (2012). It is ‘the sense of sharing felt by a group when their life together takes on deep meaning and collective awareness.’ It is ‘the gift of togetherness.’ Conviviality is the very foundation of community, of living together. It is more necessary than ever that we gather together and continue to explore how to live on this earth in more hopeful, joyful and life-giving ways.

The Shieling Project, Glenstrathfarrar – restoring life and community

In some ways I have now come full circle. I began by talking about about the materiality of aesthetic encounters and experiences that re-frame or affirm our perception of the world and our relationship to it. This is where the life energy is to be found, the impulse, the catalyst for change:

“We must find ways to ‘rekindle those transformative powers which are vital, not only in order for social, revolutionary change to occur, but to confront the challenges of the future”

— Walters 2012

Inviting us to consider the challenges of the future – collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible (Bendell 2018) – does not need to lead to apathy or despair. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we can enjoy community and conviviality with each other, something positive is possible – possibility becomes possible – and a radical hope can be found. On the macro scale, it can difficult to see the positives. On the micro scale, however, there are pockets of possibility all over the place. There are hugely positive stories to tell. There are glimpses of the future, of ‘a culture of possibility,’ right here in the present.

Ultimately, geopoetics calls for poeisis – the making, gathering, the bringing together. This is to participate in our collective human attempt to find meaning in its fullest realisation. Such a way of being has potential to re-energise individuals with a radical hope for the future. I give my final words to Tony McManus, in the The Radical Field:

“ Perhaps, eventually, a movement might arise which could revolutionise society, not from a standpoint under a banner (this is always exploited by a power group or class) but on the basis of knowledge and awareness – individuals sharing a grounding, living a shared culture of perception.”

— McManus 2004


McManus, T. (2007) The Radical Field
Letter to Guardian: Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible. We must take action, Fri 26 Oct 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/26/facts-about-our-ecological-crisis-are-incontrovertible-we-must-take-action
Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body
White, K. (2004) The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal
Husserl, e. (1936) Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy
McManus, T (n.d) ‘Philistinism and Cultural Revolution Textualities‘ http://textualities.net/tony-mcmanus/philistinism-and-cultural-revolutionBachelard, G. (1957) Poetics of Space
Hashas, M. (2017) Intercultural Geopoetics in Kenneth White’s Open World
Basso, K. (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places
Lederach, J. P. (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Sou of Building Peace
Kockel, U. (2010) Re-Visioning Europe: Frontiers, Place Identities and Journeys in Debatable Lands.
Kockel, U. (2011) ‘Morphogenetic Fieldwork and the Ethnologic of Toposophy: Mediation on a Coyote Wandering on Rannoch Moor’ in Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics (eds) Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, Victoria Walters.
Springer, S. (2017) ‘Earth Writing’ in GeoHumanities, 2017. 3:1, 1-19
Melucci, A. (1989) Nomads of the present: social movements and individual needs in contemporary society.
Winkler, R. (2018) ‘Universities in the Neoliberal Age’ Mail & Guardian https://mg.co.za/article/2018-09-14-00-universities-in-the-neoliberal-age
IPPC ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C’ http://www.ipcc.ch/
WWF ‘Living Planet Report’https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/
Extinction Rebellion https://risingup.org.uk/XR/
DCMS (2018) ‘Creative Industries Mapping Document’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/creative-industries-mapping-documents-2001
Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
Hamilton, C. et al. (eds.) (2015), The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis
Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World
Bridle, J. (2018) New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
Bendell, J. (2018) ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’
Degrowth Website https://www.degrowth.info/en/
Erskine, C. (2014) ‘Exploring the lifeworlds of community activists: an investigation of incompleteness and contradiction.’ PhD thesis
Eagleton, T. (2011) Why Marx Was Right
Harvey, D. (2001) Spaces of Hope
Wight, I. Website: ‘Wondering Pondering Beyonding’ http://ianwight.ca/
Turner, E. (2012) Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy
Walters, V. (2012) Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d.

07. February 2018 · Comments Off on February 2018: A Highland Stravaig and other Geopoetics News · Categories: Uncategorised

Welcome to your Geopoetics newsletter for February with news and information about upcoming events in Scotland and beyond.

Read the full newsletter here

Stravaig: Online Journal

Many thanks to everyone who sent in essays, poems, images and artwork for issue 6 of our online journal Stravaig. We received more submissions than ever before so it will take us some time to complete the editing. There will be more news to follow but in the meantime take a look at previous issues here.

Geopoetics Highland Stravaig: Abriachan, Saturday 26th May

Tickets £25 (including lunch and evening meal)

Tickets available from the Moniack Mhor website here
Facebook event page
Download full information here

Our next event will be a Highland Stravaig on Saturday 26 May 2018 in Abriachan in collaboration with Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, and the Abriachan Forest Trust. Abriachan is a rural community set high in the hills above the western shores of Loch Ness. We will explore Abriachan both as a rich cultural and literary landscape and as a part of a diverse bio-region, reflecting on different creative, poetic and aesthetic ways of being in this place.

A live theme at last year’s Expressing the Earth’conference on Seil Island in Argyll was the contribution of geopoetics to modern land consciousness. There is a social and poetic link here: 2018 sees the 20th anniversary of the Abriachan Forest Trust’s community land buy-out in 1998, which followed the Isle of Eigg in 1997. This year’s Stravaig event is, in part, a celebration of this milestone in Abriachan’s history. Local writer Katharine Stewart (1914 – 2013), a former member of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, played an important role in this story. Stewart’s writing – including A Croft in the Hills (1979) and Abriachan: The Story of an Upland Community (2000) –  is celebrated this year by Moniack Mhor with a bursary for aspiring nature writers and writers of historical fiction.

Following the inaugural Tony McManus Lecture on ‘Nan Shepherd as an Early Geopoet’ by James McCarthy in November 2017, we will also reflect on the work of local author Jessie Kesson, who, upon a chance meeting with Shepherd, was inspired to pursue her writing.

To introduce the day, we will discover more about the story of Abriachan from leader of the Forest School, Suzann Barr, and Gaelic expert Roddy MacLean will share his deep knowledge of Gaelic place-names, native flora and fauna and local geodiversity on a forest walk in the shadow of hill Carn na Leitire (outdoor wear recommended!). In the afternoon, following a lunch of soup and bread, we will hear from ecologist and international river campaigner Lucio Marcello – who is currently investigating archive materials to chart the impact of dams and other land use changes on the biodiversity of the Ness river system – and from writer and cartographer Raghnaid Sandilands who will share her creative approach to landscape and cultural memory.

Following some free creative time in the afternoon, we will traverse 1.4 miles up the road to the Village Hall. Writer and musician Heather Clyne will introduce us to the work of Jessie Kesson with a selection of readings on a short walking tour through the village. This will be followed by a hearty shared meal in the hall and an evening ceilidh with opportunities for open floor contributions. Music for dancing will be provided by the local ceilidh band.

Download full information here
Email Mairi at geopoetichighland@gmail.com for further information.


N E W S  &  E V E N T S

Members’ News: Elizabeth Rimmer launches ‘Haggards’ at SPL

We would like to send very best wishes toElizabeth Rimmer, who launches her third full-length poetry collection at theScottish Poetry Library on Saturday 10 FebruaryHaggards, published by Red Squirrel press, plays off the different meanings of the word ‘haggard’ – wild and untamed, worn by grief and hardship; and the Irish designation for a patch of land, too small to cultivate, granted to peasants to grow their own crops, to create poems about herbs, personal and social upheaval, creativity and regeneration. Free event, free wine. All welcome. Read more


Bothy Culture and Beyond: A Live, Lasting Culture

‘Bothy Culture and Beyond,’ the music of Martyn Bennett orchestrated for the stage by conductor Greg Lawson, was a major highlight at this year’s Celtic Connections Festival. Read Mairi McFadyen‘s outstanding essay on the cultural significance of this event, reflecting on the potent link between the politics of land reform and the poetics of a deep culture. Read here (republished on Bella Caledonia here)

Asheville Wordfest, NC, USA: Earth, People and Words

Norman Bissell and Alastair McIntoshwill travel over the Atlantic this April to speak at Asheville Wordfest in North Carolina on the theme of science, soul and art in conversation. The event is organised by Laura Hope-Gill, who attended the Expressing the Earthconference last year. Laura is a writer, poet, architectural historian, film-maker, teacher and directs the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville. Read more.

Geraldine Green: Writing Workshops and Courses

Cumbrian writer Geraldine Green is leading several upcoming workshops and courses details below:

Friday 6 April,  10am – 4pm
Write in Nature at Eycott Hill, Cumbria Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve, free workshop details here.

Saturday 16 June, 10.30am – 4.30pm
Write on the Shore at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve, £35 incl. refreshments, booking:geraldinegreen.poetry1@gmail.com

Friday 22 June – Sunday 24 June
Midsummer Poetry residential course at Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria with co-tutor Pippa Little. Booking is through Brantwood Details here.

Geraldine blogs at Salt Road: http://geraldinegreensaltroad.blogspot.co.uk/2018/

Please send information about geopoetics related publications, news and events for our next Newsletter to normanbissell@btinternet.com.

09. January 2018 · Comments Off on Newsletter January 2018: Final Call for submissions to Stravaig · Categories: Uncategorised

Happy New Year! This newsletter is a reminder about upcoming deadlines and contains some new information about events and opportunities in 2018.

Read the full newsletter here


Stravaig is the online journal for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.

We invite you to submit essays, poems, artwork and images for the next issue on the theme of ‘Expressing the Earth.’ We would especially welcome papers, articles and creative work from those who attended our June Conference. Essays max. 4,000 words, no more than 4 poems/images.

Our editorial group consists of Norman Bissell, Mairi McFadyen, Ullrich Kockel, Elizabeth Rimmer and Caroline Watson.

Deadline: 15 January 2018
Please email submissions to normanbissell@btinternet.com

N E W S  &  E V E N T S

Highland Stravaig, Saturday 26 May 2018

Our next event will be a Highland Stravaig in Abriachan above Loch Ness (near Inverness) on Saturday 26 May. The event will be in association with Moniack Mhorand the Abriachan Forest Trust. Following our discussion on Nan Shepherd, we will reflect on the work of Jessie Kesson, explore the local cultural landscape and its biodiversity and celebrate Abriachan’s role in land reform (2018 is the 20th anniversary of Abriachan’s community buy-out). Full details to follow. Email Mairi McFadyen for more info.



Katharine Stewart Bursary

In celebration of the life and work of Abriachan-based Katharine Stewart, who was a former member of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre Moniack Mhor are offering the prize of a place on either the Nature Writing or Historical Fiction course to a writer in 2018. Open to unpublished/published writers living and working in the Highlands who have or would like to have a piece of work in development. Read more here.


Please send information about geopoetics related publications, news and events for our next Newsletter to normanbissell@btinternet.com.

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 Barnhill 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.

23. July 2017 · Comments Off on “Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound”: Prof. Michael Russell · Categories: Expressing the Earth · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound” Argyll: Place, People and Neighbours

Prof. Michael Russell, MSP for Argyll & Bute; Minister for UK Negotiation on Scotland’s Place in Europe

Keynote address at the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics ‘Expressing the Earth’ conference, 24th June 2017

The Glenmasan Manuscript, written in 1238, brought to light a much older gem of Scottish/Irish literature, the Lament of Deirdre. Full of imagery of the place and its environment it is a good starting point to consider Argyll as an integral whole and the way in which it relates to its neighbours, then and now.

“It is a great pleasure to be here this morning.

It must be coming on for two years since I first discussed the possibility of this event taking place. I did so on the neighbouring island of Luing with my friend Norrie Bissell, and it is he and my other good friend, Mark Sheridan, among others, who have made it happen.

At that time I was out of Government; released after 8 years of Ministerial office, five of which were as Scotland’s Education Secretary, which followed on two years as Environment Minister and too short a time – only 9 months – as Culture Minister.

I had recently taken up an intriguing and enjoyable position as Professor in Scottish Culture & Governance at Glasgow University and I was looking forward to contributing to a range of events such as this, as well as teaching and writing in the University – all the while continuing to represent the most beautiful, and the most rural and diverse, constituency in the Scottish Parliament: Argyll & Bute.

I was more than aware of Norrie’s championing of Geopoetics over many years and the idea of an event that brought to our shores and doorsteps a consideration of this part of Argyll in a wider, deeper way; a way that connected the land, landscape, environment and culture to the people was (and is) very attractive.

What, of course, I did not know, is that when I agreed then to deliver a keynote, I would be doing so in very changed times and with a very changed role: back in Government and spending every day focused on the threat to Scotland that is presented by a UK Tory Government fixated not on moving forward in understanding, but instead backward in polity.

So what I have to say today will be different from what I might have planned to say even twelve months ago. It may be as much geopolitics as geopoetics – or perhaps an amalgam of the two – although it is driven by my own continuing fascination with and support for, the extraordinary vision of Kenneth White.

Twelve months ago of course, on this very day, we had woken up to the reality of the Brexit referendum decision (or, rather, decisions). A positive intention to stay was declared by every area of Scotland and by Northern Ireland and London, but a narrow decision to leave recorded in other areas and by the UK electorate if taken as a whole.

I was driving that morning to Oban – to catch the ferry to Mull – and it was with a heavier and heavier sense of foreboding that I approached the town. On the boat I found myself holding a surgery of sorts as people approached me to discuss the outcome and what might happen next.

Yet, even then we could not have imagined how much worse things were to get. The triumph of the UKIP Brexiteers was not yet complete; they had still to take over the policy and the party of Government, though that has now happened.

The recent election has merely deepened the crisis.  As a diplomat said to me earlier this week, when the Italian press start to describe the governance of the U.K. as “unstable” you know you have problems!

But I am not going to dwell on that today – or rather I am going to approach it and its impact from a very different angle.

So let me start in a different time and place. A time of greater hope.

In August 2001, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Kenneth White gave what I still think of as one of the finest lectures I have ever been privileged to hear.

The lecture was sponsored by Consignia, an ill-fated re-branding name for the much better titled ‘Post Office’ which came and went in a mere 15 months (a little lesson in that). They invited every one of the 129 MSPs who had been elected only two years before.

However, I learnt later that only two bothered to turn up – myself and, I believe, Roseanna Cunningham.

It was the other 127 MSPs’ loss.

The Remapping of Scotland booklet by Kenneth White

I shall draw on that lecture – entitled ‘The Re-Mapping of Scotland’ – heavily today. I want to start with an early thought from it.

At the very beginning, White stakes out the intellectual ground on which he stands when he says this:

Scotland at this moment is in a transitional stage – we can probably all agree on that, for a start. At surface level , it’s a question of politics. At a deeper level it’s a question of poetics. I don’t neglect the politics, but Im I am more concerned with the poetics. If you get politics and poetics coming together you can begin to think you’ve got something like a live, lasting, culture.”

And then he starts off on our voyage of discovery with the physical reality of where we stand:

A country,” he says, ” begins with a ground, a geology. When it loses contact with that, it is no longer a country at all. It is just a supermarket, a Disneyland or a madhouse.”

Both remarks are as true today as they were then. We are still in a transitional stage. Though the transition is less hopeful, the destination perhaps less appealing and more problematic.

But let me too start with a ground, with the ground, which is what he calls his ‘first zone’ in the remapping of our country – a task needed more than ever.

I represent a constituency which consists of a large swathe of rural, West Coast Scotland, as well as 23 inhabited islands and hundreds and probably thousands of other pieces of rock and grass surrounded by sea, which are outcroppings of a geology that floats on a plate in constant, though very slow, motion around our planet.

Last October I stood on the border of ‘our’ plate – the Eurasian Plate – where it abuts onto another of the 15 large plates, the North American Plate.

It is a plate, we should not forget, on which we float with the whole of Europe and which, therefore, declares some form of common destiny.

At that particular point in Iceland, however, there is in the process of being made, as the Icelanders say, ‘new earth,’ for the plates are what is called in geology ‘divergent.’ Their boundary is that of the North Atlantic ridge where vulcanism brings to the surface molten lava from deep under the plate.

But at that spot the Icelanders also made something else: a country.

The Icelandic Flag

For in the valley between the plates – where the new earth is being made (though at this spot the motion is presently ‘transformative,’ that is side by side) – a tall flagpole flying the Icelandic flag marks the spot where the ancient Parliament of Iceland met; and where, on the 17th of June 1944, the Republic was proclaimed, bringing an end to the Union of the Crowns with Denmark.

The link between the country and the ground is obvious in Iceland. In Argyll it can be obvious too, if we look for it.

‘Deirdre’s Lament,’ or her ‘Farewell to Alba’ is a work that we know from the 13th century Glenmasan manuscript, though it is undoubtedly earlier in origin. ‘Alba,’ of course, being Kenneth White’s preferred name for the country in which we live, for, as he puts it:

“The word has “an A for a beginning and another A at the end, for an opening. In between you have lb; libra, books.”

Glenmasan is in Cowal, a high glen still difficult to enter. It is here that the manuscript seems to have been written, and it starts with these words:

“Do dech Deardir ar a heise ar crichibh Alban, agus ro chan an Laoidh Inmain tir in tir ud thoir
Alba cona lingantaibh

(Deirdre looked back on the land of Alban, and sung this lay:-

Beloved is that eastern land,
Alba, with its lakes.)”

Deirdre – Scotland’s ‘Helen of Troy’ – is, of course, preparing to leave Alba, and it is the land, the landscape, the environment and the people which she is mourning, but also celebrating.

And here are just a few more of the places she celebrates:

“Glenmasan! High is its wild garlic, fair its branches
I would sleep wakefully
Over the shaggy Invermasan.
Glen Etive! in which I raised my first house,
Delightful were its groves on rising
When the sun struck on Glen Etive.
My delight was Glen Urchay;
It is the straight vale of many ridges.
Joyful were his fellows around Naos
In Glen Urchay.
My delight in every man who belongs to it.
Sweet is the voice of the cuckoo
On the bending tree,
Sweet it is above Glendaruadh.
Beloved is Drayen of the sounding shore!
Beloved is Avich (Dalavich?) of the pure sand.”

I count myself lucky today to be one of those men who ‘belongs’ to Glendaruel, having lived there for the past quarter of a century and having heard the cuckoo there often.

This poem – perhaps the oldest recognisable description of Argyll – is, in every sense, ‘grounded.’ Deirdre’s Argyll is not a supermarket or Disneyland; it is a place that shapes her and us, and is in turn shaped by her and us.

Deirdre had an intimate connection with, thoughts about, experience of and sensation in the landscape and the places. Just as we have, today, in the same places and landscape that have not changed greatly in a thousand years.

The same grounding remains a feature of the aesthetic of many creators in Scotland. We can experience it ourselves in the poetry of Norman MacCaig who draws in the living as well, in poems such as “So Many Summers” and in the poetry of Jim Carruth, a particular contemporary favourite of mine, whose poem ‘The Field’ ends with these two verses:

“He looked at Muirsheil’s dark and blackened hills

Round to the hard won grazing of the Law

And further to the creep of city high rise

He raised one strong arm across his body

Then with the grace of a sower’s wide arc

Scattered his father to the wind”

In any consideration of country and ground we have to include people and their physical and intellectual creations as well as their state of life or death.

And in so doing we move to White’s “second zone”, the zone of history, identity and culture. It is here, of course, that White in his Edinburgh Book Festival lecture was at his most critical. He despairs of the inability to draw the ‘significant lines together’ and wonders if it is possible to re-ground our country and culture, or as he later puts it , to ‘re-found’ it.

His description of the ‘self made nitwit, the smart semi-educated nonentity, moneyed without being mannered’ who inhabits this space perhaps strikes a renewed chord though the intrusive ‘lap top and portable’ are probably replaced now (only a decade and a half on) by the iPhone and Twitter.

But the purpose of lampooning that person and the land he inhabits is not only to make us sensitive to ourselves and our faults. It is also to drive on, by means of contrast, to his His real objective, which is the ‘head zone’ as he describes it,

the zone of philosophy and poetics, the regaining of a significant centre for a culture with a re-grounded educational system, with value-oriented information, with enlightened cultural politics…a place where , in a simile, he envisages ‘more and more people going into bookshops, able at a glance, at a whiff, to make the difference.’

‘A virtuous populace’ wrote Burns – in that much-maligned ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night’ – ‘may rise a while / and stand a wall of fire around their much lov’d isle.’ The same thought, in a different cultural time and clad in different clothing.

White’s aim, in this ‘remapping’ is the clearest thing in his text. It is to ‘refound’ and re-centre our selves within our landscape and our culture. To reconnect us to the holistic nature of existence and landscape and to raise our eyes and minds to its significance.

This ‘remapping of Scotland’ was never going to be easy but the importance of the lecture is in part in its date. White saw the opportunity that a new Parliament and a new spirit of optimism had created. Unfortunately, that opportunity was not completely taken, that new optimism not completely converted in to action.

Perhaps it could have never have been but the potential remained alive. And the good news is that it is still alive. There is still an energy for change in Scotland – an energy of aspiration that is more than material; a politics and public life that is still driven, at least in part, by ideas and principle.

But last June a new threat appeared on the horizon. That threat may not only kill the potential, it might also unleash a process of cultural regression and political isolationism. And it is here that the poetics and the politics meet.

In On the Border, White rightly refuses to take sides between globalism and narrow nationalism.

“In the ongoing debate,” he writes, “between commercially high-powered, multinational globalism on the one hand, and, on the other, localism, geared to identity ideology, narrow nationalism, sectarianism, provincial complacency – geopoetics sides with neither party”

But then he goes on to make a plea for something bigger and smaller than both – the “World”

“….“World” for geopoetics is open world. Open world begins with place, not with simple piety of place (from homely couthiness to spooky animism via racial rootedness), but with knowledge (informed, sentient, intelligent) of place. From the smallest rivulet, via a network of rivers, one arrives at the ocean. A little geology allows one to know that not all the stones on the local beach are necessarily of local origin, that glaciers may have brought them in from elsewhere. Likewise, from a layer of local rock one can move across nations and continents. An informed look at the sky will see not only wind-driven cloud, but the tracks of migratory birds. To all of which must be added the movements of population and language.”

World is wide but rooted. World accepts, indeed welcomes, connectedness but knows place. World has knowledge and arises from knowledge, but knowledge is deep, not shallow or easy. And world is not only out there, but in here – not only outside us but alongside us and within us.

He puts it, of course, better than I can.:

A world is a place, a space that one cultivates. And in order to be up to that world-cultivation, one has to cultivate one’s self.”

When I say ‘cultural regression’ I mean the threat from the process of Brexit that we will have our Scottish voice and our distinctive choices drowned out.

That would be the antithesis of deep knowledge of place. And our political expression may be blunted by the desire of the current UK Government to follow the path of disconnectedness it has chosen no matter the views of the divergent nations of these islands for whom connection is more and more important.

And when I say ‘political isolationism’ I mean the process of turning away from the mainstream of European life which is more than institutions but which is based – at its best – on a vision of peace and prosperity which has secured both those things for the lucky inhabitants of this continent for the past fifty years.

And more. It is turning away from a process that has widened and deepened our sense of who we are and who we can become through common citizenship with France five centuries years ago, through the experience of the peddler in mitel Europa, so prevalent that the word to describe him in high German is Scot. It is turning away from who we are and who we can become through the writings of David Hume in French (because French was his language too) through the vision of the Enlightenment, through the romanticism of MacPherson’s Ossian (whose poems were in Napoleon’s tent on the field of Waterloo) through the founder of the historic novel who was read from Waverley to Warsaw, through, indeed, White at the Sorbonne…

In other words, turning away from a process that has built (at last) political progress on the growing together of cultural roots and which can only be weakened if we take away that superstructure.

I was privileged to hear President Obama, when he spoke in Edinburgh last month, talking of the best moment to be born on this planet – now.

Now, because it is, or could be, a golden age in which the wealth of the world was turned to supporting all those who are citizens of it and in which technological progress could ensure equity no matter where one lives.

A golden age that could be – but which is not, yet. And voices that support that type of world are becoming harder to hear amidst the cacophony of fake news and propaganda. Of shallow knowledge.

But no matter one’s view of that world, putting one’s faith in politics to change these situations is a necessary step. It is the means, still, for securing change.

But recognising the deeper connectedness of humanity, not just one to one, not just individual to society, but connectedness to the ‘World’ in White’s definition is equally important. So geopoetics – as the means to ensure deep knowledge, place and connectedness – stands alongside geopolitics as a means of securing the future …the ‘world’ which is still there to be won.

Sometimes this type of discussion seems pointless. No matter how much we, in this small hall – on the edge of Scotland, which is on the edge of Europe and in a state (in every sense of that word) of insecurity – believe in thought, creativity and progress, we may often feel that we are only whistling in a cold wind.

But we are not.  We are holding a candle in the darkness, keen to pass light to others to drive away fear.

In our cultural traditions – often diverse but often with common roots – there are many examples of such actions, undertaken symbolically to encourage continued hope. In the Christian Easter vigil, for example, as dusk falls, a blazing bonfire is lit outside the church from which a tiny candle flame is kindled and then carried into the heart of the community. I stood on an Argyll hillside and had a candle in my hand re-lit by this symbolic light coming into the world at just such a vigil only a couple of months ago.

And there will be light in our lives, light in our minds, if, to quote again Kenneth White at the commencement of his Edinburgh lecture we “get politics and poetics coming together” for then we “can begin to think we’ve got something like a live, lasting, culture.

A live, lasting culture – a culture to rise above the declining culture that would be the poisoned fruit of Brexit.

I live with the reality of political change every day. I see at very close quarters the existential threat – and I use those words carefully but truthfully – that Brexit is. It is about much more than institutions and much more than contemporary political alliances. It is about how we see ourselves, how we view our world and whether we want ourselves and our neighbours to be grounded, to be re-founded, to be connected; or to be cast adrift and looking only inwards.

Here, in Argyll, we have much around us that can remind us of that choice. And remind us that it is the ground beneath us, and the signs of continued presence all around us, that give us the best lessons in ensuring that we join in, rather than walk away.

Just up the road from here there is an ancient site – Kilmartin Glen – where no doubt the questions of connection or isolation were in the minds and rituals of inhabitants long before we were ever plagued by the same thoughts.

Standing Stones Kilmartin Glen

Kilmartin is a good place for me to conclude these thoughts, starting as I did in Glenmasan – a span across my whole constituency.

My Glasgow University colleague Alan Riach writes this of his experience of Kilmartin, in words which could be well described as ‘grounded’ – in Argyll, a distillation of the goepoetic world view:

“I never saw the intricate connections with quite this sunny clarity before, such intimate revealing of relations in brilliance, and at such an hour: the West and Islands open to the sea and Ireland, always seemed to be alive with colour: bright blue waters, emeralds and snow; but shapes and movement, glacial striations, ox-bow lakes, tidal rivers, hill-tops making patterns to each other – all connect in vision as the art of men and women finds its laws in natural reciprocation: raindrops in a quiet pool form expanding spirals on the bending plane: an ancient brooch, the lunulae – silver, gold: water, sunlight, eyes to see the clearness of design.

And this takes place in mind, imagination: across 10,000 years, while now outside the car my father drives, the rain drives down on grass and bracken, heather rocks and hills and lochs and lochans, midges and elusive little fish. The forestry have camouflaged the earth’s wet dark antiquity; the road between Kilmartin and the ferry just approaching Oban is impatient, twisty, a hard fast exit through this valley of old ghosts. And yet the vision stays perception, the clarity of sunlight’s careful disposition, in this undifferentiated time.”

An ‘undifferentiated time’: a time of continuity and connection. A time grounded in the world, conscious of place and knowing one’s self. A confidence even during transition, even during that transition which Kenneth White imagined taking place in 2001 and which continues under darker skies.

“Fare forward, voyager” instructed T.S. Eliot, echoing that earlier injunction from Walt Whitman: “Now Voyager, Sail Forth to seek and find

Sail forward. Sail Forward because we have no alternative but to keep going, to travel with hope, but always to apply intelligence, creativity, poetry and even politics to where we are, where we are traveling through and to where we want to get.

And always to be connected. To hear the sweet sound of the cuckoo in Glendaruel and to know that it is one of the songs that links – and has long linked – Argyll, and us in Argyll, to Argyll and us and to the deep and wide, if not yet grounded, world.”