15. November 2020 · Comments Off on Geopoetics in a time of Catastrophic Crisis, the fourth Tony McManus Lecture by Richard Roberts 7 November 2020 · Categories: Geology, geopoetics, philosophy, poetry · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture 2020

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

Geopoetics in a time of catastrophic crisis

NB: VERSION FOR POSTING ON THE SCOTTISH CENTRE FOR GEOPOETICS WEBSITE. THIS IS WORK IN PROGRESS, PLEASE DO NOT CITE WITHOUT FIRST CONSULTING THE AUTHOR. 

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 Covid-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.       

 Inspiration

All is lithogenesis—or lochia, …

Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,

I study you glout and gloss, but have

No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again

From optik to haptik and like a blind man run

My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,

Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles,

Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,

An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns,

Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world,

Deictic, fiducial stones.

From A Raised Beach, Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

Introduction: Covid-19, Geopoetics in the New Abnormal

Welcome, and a personal thank you to Norrie Bissell and David Francis who have done so much to organise this event and facilitated my participation. 

Furthermore, at the outset of this lecture I should like to acknowledge the debt that we owe to Tony McManus, in his seeking to render the poetic oeuvre of Kenneth White not merely accessible, but of making apparent the full, yet not unproblematic, scale of White’s achievement as a chief architect of ‘geopoetics’.  

Tony McManus shows us that White’s work is the product of extended and unsparing creativity that is never out of border crossings in nature, culture, nations, languages, and above all in the intensification of place and moment. 

It is, however, only towards the end of McManus’ The Radical Field that we are finally given a definition, albeit full and complex, of the term ‘geopoetics’ This is a passage frequently deployed by White and we cite it in full. You will find it on page three of your handout:

Geopoetics is concerned with ‘wording’ (and ‘wording’ is contained in ‘worlding’). In my semantics, ‘world’ emerges from a contact between the human mind and the things, the lines, the rhythms of the earth, the person in relation to the planet. When this contact is sensitive, subtle, intelligent, you have ‘a world’ (a culture) in the strong, confirming and enlightening sense of the word. When that contact is insensitive, simplistic and stupid, you don’t have a world at all, you have a non-world, a pseudo-culture, a dictatorial enclosure or a mass-mess. Geopoetics is concerned with developing sensitive and intelligent contact, and with working out original ways to express that contact’. (McManus 2007, p. 183).

At this point a decision is required as to how to tackle the fundamental questions evoked by this definition. 

Kenneth White is without doubt one of an elite, a self-selected as well as publicly recognised elite. 

In my view, the full scale of White’s achievement remains less than fully inaccessible to a mass Scottish readership because much of his writing is in French. The best way to counter this would be if a full critical edition of White’s work were to be published. 

In addition to this, there is in some quarters an inherent resistance to White’s poetry which I first witnessed at Stanza poetry festival held in the University of St Andrews, to which Norrie Bissell alluded last year. The local distinguished poets in that ancient seat of academic endeavour notably absented themselves. 

Tony McManus’ study is an introduction to a distinct genre and he draws upon an exceptionally wide range of reference. In my contribution today I shall be rather bold. I shall seek to confront a poem written by Hugh MacDiarmid, the driving force behind the Scottish twentieth century literary renaissance, is ‘geopoetry’, a geopoesis, and world-making sought by Kenneth White and his key interpreter, the late Tony McManus.     

At this juncture the question as to what now constitutes what White calls ‘sensitive, subtle and intelligent’ contact with the world is now, I will argue, rather more complex than it might seem at first sight. Whilst we shall argue that the salience of geopoetics may have increased, the way of appropriation has become more arduous and problematic. 

When I was invited a year ago to present this year’s annual Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture, none of us knew what would take place in the interim. 

In late 2019 when I first formulated and ambitious abstract for this lecture my thoughts were based on the presupposition of the existence of a world that was still manifesting homeostasis, a self-regulating stability, albeit one threatened by the slow yet accelerating, multi-dimensional environmental degradation associated above all with climate change. 

There was, of course, a growing awareness that we were living in the era of the Anthropocene, in which the major consequences of human industrialisation were now laid down in geological deposition. 

Global environmental activism was taking place inspired by such iconic figures as Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. The highly-focused gestural challenges of Extinction Rebellion (ER) were being applied at societal and economic pressure points. In investment and the global macro-economy, environment, sustainability and governance (ESG) were gaining traction. 

There was an incipient aesthetic and affective yearning for close encounters with Nature in the face of its destruction in the rediscovery of the genre of nature writing, and so on.  

Now, by contrast, we exist in what for us in the West, Europe, Anglo-America – and Scotland – is a time of acute crisis unparalleled in recent human history. The Covid-19 pandemic has destabilised the configuration I assumed on the autumn of 2019.

The state of affairs that has come upon us in the interim is not of course a singularity, but a complex interpenetration of crises, environmental, economic and societal. The longstanding and difficult to define ‘global problématique’ (Ruggie, 1980) has now been radicalised, intensified and thus rendered yet more complex. 

This radicalisation and intensification of the human condition should be understood in terms of a total ecology, a ‘human ecology’. My involvement in the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh in the late 1990s was a critically important phase, not least because it exposed me to both the complexity of the issues and to the resonance and ‘elective affinities’ (a term derived from Goethe and theorised by Max Weber) between environmental and ecological degradation and human trauma.   

Our central concern in this lecture is to explore the promise and limits of geopoetics in the context of the present crisis and its ongoing consequences. 

The Covid-19 global pandemic will oblige us to regard the years 2019-2020 as a major hiatus. In the light of this break, a before- and an after-Covid-19, how should we regard geopoetics? How stands our life-world (Lebenswelt) in the Geo/Cosmos of Scotland, what Kenneth White calls the movement from ‘wording to worlding’? 

As intimated in the abstract, this lecture is framed by allusions to Hugh MacDiarmid’s great poem, On a Raised Beach, a text that serves as my geopoetic starting point and anchor.

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Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

MacDiarmid’s austere epic confronts humanity with the intransigence of the rocks, yet it also implies a union between the microcosm of the grasped pebble and the macrocosm of the Earth, indeed of the Cosmos as a totality. 

I shall seek to show that this apparently simple juxtaposition of thumb, stone and finger was grounded in an experience which has affinities with contemporary moves in ‘deep ecology’. 

This commonality in experience may facilitate the refraction of a multitude of issues. These range from connection with the origination of the world and the traces of primordial orogeny through to the present and the possibilities of the future. 

We are now living through a societal setting, indeed a global context which, in the classic Durkheimian sense, is in a state of ‘collective effervescence’. This process is both risk-fraught and essential to social transformation.    

Greater questions lurk at this juncture. How might, for example, the paradoxical conjunction between our destruction of the Earth and our renascent love of Nature be reconciled? 

If, as I shall argue, there is a momentary experience of non-dualistic identification that underlies MacDiarmid’s encounter between hand and stone, then how can the proliferation of the legitimate search for such identity be fulfilled without the destruction of the renewed object of love, Nature itself? 

Moreover, how we might move from primal juxtaposition of self and cosmos and its representations through ancestral dialectics in a tradition of haecceitas and the history of philosophy and theology be connected with the ineluctable need for convivial human community? 

These considerations will draw us into the anthropology of shamanism and ritual and their latent possibilities.

1 Covid-19: An apocalyptic disruption?

On a pragmatic level the present pandemic crisis is a disruption characterised by ongoing anti-globalisation, regressive nativism, and recrudescent fascism, besides a range of other, more ambiguous phenomena associated with conspiracy theories and panic thinking,

At the core of this entanglement is the apparently uncontrolled proliferation of fear – and there is indeed much to fear. Yet we are increasingly aware the great fear is not solely a spontaneous psychological, anthropological and societal phenomenon, but one fuelled and distributed through social media and the analysis and manipulation of big data. 

Conspiracy theories abound; people find their friendships breaking as they locate themselves on different sides of the complicated dichotomy between saving the economy and saving lives. 

Indeed, I was recently surprised and somewhat disappointed when a former postgraduate of mine (and now emeritus professor in a reputable university) recently contacted me from the Pacific Rim and asked me if I was a ‘Covid-believer’, and thus condoning the global capitalist plan to enslave all humanity. 

There is indeed much panic thinking, a short-circuiting of mental processes now explained in variety of ways, including through accounts of the misplaced operation of different parts of the brain when faced by imponderable and unassimilable experience. The phenomenon of mass fear is not of course itself new, but its rapid, virtually instantaneous mediation arguably is.   

When events take place that exceed the previous bounds of shared sense, the mythic dimension comes to the fore. In traditional theological terminology our present merits characterisation as a time of judgement and decision (κρισις), and even apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις). 

Resonant prior examples of the resurgence of apocalyptic ideas in the context of extreme crisis and change are evident in, for example, Gibbon’s famous account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), accounts of the Black Death (1348 – 1353), Joachim of Fiore’s idea of the Third Age (circa 1130-1201), the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon represented by Nostradamus as the Antichrist), and Oswald Spengler’s cyclic account of the rise and fall of civilisations, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918/1922/1923) published during the period of disruption after the First World War in Germany. 

The ambiguous return of notions of eschatology, apocalyptic and associated panic thought invite clarification in terms of secularisation and re-mystification theory (Roberts 1992) and indeed psychopathology; once more, however, though relevant to our topic, these factors are not our primary concern. Of course, the ground was prepared in the United States through (e.g.) the writings of Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth.

We are not here engaged with the sociological or anthropological explanation of the generation of myth and apocalypse, but with the more pragmatic question as to what in our extraordinary present does Geopoetics have to offer us as a basis for reflection and guidance for the conduct of life in a small country, and in a world beset by multiple challenges? 

It is arguable that the underlying dialectic of the real and the virtual has ontological implications which have implications for a new, context-relevant understanding of the Caledonian Antisyzygy. 

In venturing a tentative approach, I am neither a physical or a data scientist, nor a toxicologist or epidemiologist, all of which would seem to be the keynote competences in the present time. I have expended my life-effort in the shifting borderlands between areas across the ‘human sciences’ (les sciences humaines, die Geistewissenshaften), yet I believe something relevant may nonetheless emerge. 

Above all, as a career academic, my major concern was always that of enhancing the informed agency of students at all levels, and the corollary of this has been a deep interest in how human identities are formed, maintained and changed. Human identities and social cohesion are now under serious strain.  

2 The geopoetic impulse – ‘earthing/ grounding a world’

My first conscious encounter with the Scottish geopoetic impulse took place some fifty years ago in Cambridge under the tutelage of Professor Donald MacKinnon (1913-1994), then Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity and at the height of his sometimes overwhelming, albeit somewhat eccentric powers. 

In his often obscure and fascinating lectures on theology and logical analysis Mackinnon introduced us to Hugh MacDiarmid’s relatively little-known poem in England, On a Raised Beach (1934), which he described as one of the greatest metaphysical poems of the twentieth century. 

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Donald Mackenzie MacKinnon (1913-1994)

This extraordinary poem stunned me with its intensity and virtuosic juxtaposition of recondite vocabulary and a strange and seemingly paradoxical ambition to renew English as a medium of expression. Each time I return to MacDiarmid’s On a Raised Beach I am moved for a different reason. 

My first attempt at a public expression of this fascination was in a Lent talk in St Leonard’s Parish Hall in St Andrews, when I sought to explore the intertextual resonances between Christ’s forty days in the wilderness and On a Raised Beach. Whilst I still think this was a viable project, it pertains to the construal of but one layer in MacDiarmid’s polyvalent text. There are clearly biblical allusions and there is a theological (or anti-theological) critique in this poem. 

On this present return to On a Raised Beach in the context of the multidimensional Covid-19 pandemic, the following question arises. What kind of hermeneutic might we best employ when we seek to correlate this text with wider context, and our need to invigorate and nourish our resolve to survive? 

Well before my first encounter with On a Raised Beach, I had had a childhood passion for geology which was reinforced by a memorable stay with the distinguished geologist Sir Edmund Teale (1874-1971) in Pirbright. Sir Edmund gave me one of his geological hammers and number of remarkable specimens I still possess. Teale represented a pioneer generation of geologists whose expeditions involved scores of porters that has yet to be judged by present-day criteria as a colonial aberration. 

I was growing up in Manchester where the absence of flint was a major deprivation. I had always wanted to make flint tools and light fires like the cave-men. It was on venturing out on my own at the Teale’s in the early morning before breakfast that I discovered limitless supplies of flint during a walk in the woods around Pirbright. 

On striking the flints that filled my pockets I smelled the sulphurous odour rise from my fingers and this brought to life a remarkable book I had already read. This was A Land written by the pioneer woman geologist and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes (1910-1996), and first published in 1951. Robert MacFarlane in a recent re-review described A Land as in parts:

‘a short history of Planet England; a geological prose-poem; a Cretaceous cosmi-comedy; a patriotic hymn of love to Terra Britannica; a neo-Romantic vision of the countryside as a vast and inadvertent work of land-art; a speculative account of human identity () as chthonic in origin and collective in nature; a homily aimed at rousing us from spiritual torpor; a lusty pagan lullaby of longing; and a jeremiad against centralisation, industrialisation and “our” severance from the “land” (MacFarlane 2012) 

Macfarlane highlights Hawkes’ ‘ecstatic holism’, and it is this sensibility which would appear at first glance to connect a quintessentially English writer with the militant Border Scot Hugh MacDiarmid and his geologically-determined irruption. One might regard Jacquetta Hawkes (or even Kathleen Raine 1908-2003) as holistic ‘Neo-Romantics’, but not, I venture to think, Hugh MacDiarmid. 

Both Hawkes and MacDiarmid were inspired by the act of lying on the land; both were writers who can be understood in terms of a somatic epistemology, a perspective now widely theorised in ecophilosophy and ecopsychology. 

There is, however, a very important difference between these writers and indeed their traditions. 

This difference can be rendered as a contrast between a layered English ‘ecstatic holism’, that displays affinities with emergent subdisciplines that embody ecological insights on the one hand, and a Scottish intensity I shall place in a different context, and interpret from the standpoint of a shamanic hermeneutic.  

Putting to one side for present purposes the much contested concept of ‘shamanism’, there is an important contrast to be drawn between Hawkes’ English expressivist ethos and an aesthetic traceable back, amongst others, to William Wordsworth and John Clare on the one hand, and, on the other, MacDiarmid’s Caledonian irruption, a confrontational, even psychically violent breaking-free from layered nostalgia and an essai ultimately anchored in future-orientated prolepsis. 

3 Hugh MacDiarmid: Geopoesis and On a Raised Beach

Jacquetta Hawke’s quintessentially English nostalgia for lost connection with the land is in my judgement at rhetorical odds with Hugh MacDiarmid’s juxtaposition of primordial antiquity and the implied futurity of a campaign for the total renewal of Scotland which that springs from the aeons accessed in the pressure of opposed fingers holding a mere pebble. 

All is lithogenesis—or lochia,

Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,

Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,

Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,

Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,

Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,

Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,

I study you glout and gloss, but have

No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again

From optik to haptik and like a blind man run

My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,

Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles,

Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,

An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns,

Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world,

Deictic, fiducial stones. Chiliad by chiliad

What bricole piled you here, stupendous cairn?

What artist poses the Earth écorché thus,

Pillar of creation engouled in me?

What eburnation augments you with men’s bones,

Every energumen an Endymion yet?

All the other stones are in this haecceity it seems,

But where is the Christophanic rock that moved?

What Cabirian song from this catasta comes?

From A Raised Beach (1930), Hugh MacDiarmid

What are we to make of this extraordinary passage? It is obviously virtuosic in that most of MacDiarmid’s readers will have to reach for a very large dictionary in order to decode the vocabulary.  

This is a most uncompromising opening, a rhetorical tour-de-force that in a Brechtian manner generates an acute Verfremdungseffekt in the reader. 

This passage provokes a convulsive response, a turning away, on the part of those who might shrink from the demands of the initial etymological investigation. For those who persevere this passage could be likened to verbal electric shock treatment. 

The sheer power of the opening reminds me of the persuasive power of, for example, Germanophone writers like Ernst Bloch (Roberts 1990) and Karl Barth (Roberts 1992) who build a world through words that dislocate, and strive to create the equivalent of a numinous encounter. Set in the context of the whole poem commentators have been puzzled (Whitworth 2007).

The first line is a fiercely universal constative:

‘All is lithogenesis – or lochia’     

Literal paraphrase leaches out the compressed intensity of this line, but when deciphered and expanded the shock of what lies behind these two obscure words of Greek origin, ‘lithogenesis’ and ‘lochia’, opens up a possible line of interpretation:

‘Everything is born of or through stone – or the vaginal discharge of cellular debris, mucus, and blood following childbirth’     

The uncompromising and shocking use of the birth image prefigures Monika Sjöö and Barbara Mohr’s chthonic feminism in The Great Cosmic Mother (1987) and resonates with celebration of menstrual cycles in (e.g.) the contemporary Red Tent movement. 

The assertion of the axiomatic universal of a geopoesis, literally ‘earth-making’, through birth and the female ‘imaginary’ (imaginaire) is no casual metaphor but may be construed as a prescient ontological reversal and the prelude to non-duality of the most radical kind. 

In short, MacDiarmid, thus read and decoded, asserts an ontology that implicitly subverts the much-commented patriarchal normality of Scottish poetics. This is classically represented in Alexander Moffat’s famous painting, Poet’s Pub, now  in the National Gallery of Scotland, in which male poets venerate the master, and women are the shadowy, marginal figures on the periphery who are there to service male requirements.

Limits on space preclude a full analysis of this remarkable opening passage, but there is one phrase out of the eighteen-line lava-flow of words upon which we should focus. This culminate in the question:

What bricole piled you here, stupendous cairn?     

This evokes:

I study you glout and gloss, but have

No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again

From optik to haptik and like a blind man run

       My fingers over you,

This is an expression of total bafflement, an aporia, the sound and feel of the spade turning as it strikes bedrock. 

The move from ‘optik to haptik’ is critical: it amounts to a complete sensory shift from sight to touch in a benign somatisation. 

This encounter of finger and stone is arguably as pregnant in its significance as Marcel Proust’s transition from the mundane into sensual memory at the outset of the monumental A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. 

The smell and sensual qualities of the madeleine trigger Proust’s life-memory and the great unfolding expressed in exquisite French. A shamanic resonance is, however, explicitly alluded to by Proust: 

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life. (Proust accessed 29.10.20)

The touch of the pebble between MacDiarmid’s fingers does not trigger life-memory as such, but a sudden transition into both historical – and deep, primordial time. 

MacDiarmid’s verbal eruption demands decoding, but having undertaken an etymological investigation I have reached the conclusion that the whole point is that we should not understand on first or even later readings, but be smitten, a process to which we submit ourselves by reading the poem. 

The analogue that now comes to mind with regard to this passage is the way that a Zen master might strike the shoulders of the initiate meditator in a keisaku or utter a katsu (sudden shout) at the request of the student.     

As we read later, the veil has been torn and the poet enters a place outside time. 

Nothing has stirred

Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago

But one bird. The widest open door is the least liable to intrusion,

Ubiquitous as the sunlight, unfrequented as the sun.

The inward gates of a bird are always open.

It does not know how to shut them.

That is the secret of its song,

But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.

I look at these stones and know little about them,

But I know their gates are open too,

Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be,

That every one of them has had its gates wide open far longer

Than all birds put together, let alone humanity,

Though through them no man can see,

No man nor anything more recently born than themselves

And that is everything else on the Earth.

I too lying here have dismissed all else.

Bread from stones is my sole and desperate dearth,

From stones, which are to the Earth as to the sunlight

Is the naked sun which is for no man’s sight.

I would scorn to cry to any easier audience

Obviously at this juncture it would make sense to move further into dialogue, or more accurately, a wrestling with the entire masterpiece of On a Raised Beach. 

This is not the time or place for such endeavour. What, given our purpose today, are we to make of this extraordinary opening?  

I would suggest that MacDiarmid is seeking to realise in text the long and transformative moment he spent in an altered state of consciousness (ASC) on the raised beach in Shetland. As we have seen MacDiarmid has implicitly rejected any soft ‘sublime’ in visual imagery in the manner of a Wordsworth, and even the mature and recapitulatory Wordsworth of The Prelude. 

The initial constative, the single, short, pungent sentence, ‘All is lithogenesis of lochia’ is then followed by what in classical rhetorical terminology is intensification, an amplificatio (Steigerung) enacted through a series of incantatory verbal blows using words of recondite origin. 

This demonstration of lexicographical range is not the product of a misplaced elite egoism of the kind that would have a contemporary university teacher reprimanded in a staff-student committee, but a path into what we may call an ‘instasis’ as opposed to ‘ecstasis’ (ἔκστασις). 

If we move from the oriental analogue of the Zen shock and place the passage into a setting perhaps more familiar then the verbal blow of deconstructive encounter may also be construed as the proleptic ‘death’ of shamanic initiation which presages a journey beyond mundane confines. 

This is the ‘journey’ to which Tony McManus draws our attention in The Radical Field to Kenneth White’s concern with the ‘larger role’ of the shaman, 

‘the shaman maintains the contact between the socio-human context and the world, the universe at large’ (McManus p. 73).   

Both Hugh MacDiarmid the poet and Donald MacKinnon the theologian strove to effect such death-dealing and life-giving connection: they prune in order to stimulate growth.

The words MacDiarmid deploys may trigger an alienation of consciousness, a Verfremdungseffekt in the reader. This potentially allows access to a psychosomatic process: what has been triggered by touch may in turn now open an arduous access to the limen (threshold).  

4 Prevenient dialectics: Caledonian Haecceitas from Duns Scotus to Heidegger

What I have called MacDiarmid’s instasis (as opposed to ecstasis) has affinities with Gerard Manley Hopkins notions of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’. 

Significantly, both poets resonate with the residue of the Scottish philosopher theologian Duns Scotus (circa 1265-1308) and his concept of dynamic haecceitas, the sheer ‘thisness’ of things.  

MacDiarmid was of course no priest, whereas Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit, yet both share traditions that evolved from Scotus with very different organisational outcomes.

Whereas ‘haecceity’ the English derivative of haecceitas, is defined by the Collins Dictionary as ‘the property that uniquely identifies an object’, we are of course here touching upon complex debates in scholastic philosophy and theology which have undergone further assimilations not only through the processes of secularisation, but earlier transitions.    

Behind all Christian traditions, both East and West, there lies the suppression of paganism and the ensuing problem of the construal of ‘nature’ (thusis/natura).

Again, we do not have the time or space to enter into the detail of the reception of Christian practice and traditions in Scotland. 

During my time as Professor of Divinity in St Andrews the subliminal power of the collective unconscious exemplified concretely in the ruins of the ancient White Church of the Chaldees outside the walls of the Abbey, and the cross set in the pavement marking where the young Patrick Hamilton (1504-1528) was burned at the stake on the same day as he was condemned for heresy was palpable.   

The history of the Scottish Reformation and its ongoing aftermath is a much-studied phenomenon of narratives both intimate and traumatic. 

In terms of a summary that contributes to our reflections today, we find in the distinguished, complex and indeed extraordinary figure of the diplomat and author John Buchan (1870-1940), a writer who also anticipated and refracted both past and future like Hugh MacDiarmid. 

In his controversial historical novel Witchwood published in 1927, Buchan depicted a post-Reformation Scotland fraught with intense religious conflict and underlaid by the pervasive repression of what Carl Gustav Jung articulates as Anima, the female archetype. Rather like James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Witchwood explores aspects of the shadow in ancestral Scottish religious history.

If we draw together Hugh MacDiarmid in On a Raised Beach, John Buchan’s Witchwood, and the Edwin Muir’s (1887-1959) Scotland 1941 we can discern with the bard/poet’s and the shaman’s eyes both promise and pathologies out of which it may be possible to break. 

Yet it is the boundaries that all three writers transgress, the borderlands they inhabit and explore, and the latent potency of the collective unconscious that provides us with a further major affinity with our present concerns in the Covid-19 pandemic and the catastrophic crisis in which we are all in various ways both victims – and implicated.    

We have applied what I have ventured to call a shamanic hermeneutic to MacDiarmid’s On a Raised Beach. We now reference three fairly recent texts and practices which exemplify both affinities and discontinuities between MacDiarmid’s experience and contemporary practice.  

A John Seed and Joanna Macey: The Council of All Beings (1988)

Our first example is the Australian rainforest activist John Seed and the Buddhist activist Joanna Macey’s collection, Thinking Like a Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings (John Seed, 1988). This book advocates deep regression to ultimate origins in the formation of the Earth – and spiritual rebirth through Gaia. Having experienced a workshop facilitated by John Seed in 1999, I can testify to the power of this process. 

This experience made me aware that deep ecological neo-shamanic and ritual processes of the kind advocated by Seed and Macey will expose both current repressed and ancestral trauma. Rebirth through Gaia may well not be for everyone – and certainly not for the faint-hearted.   

If one believes in the reality of the collective unconscious, then the progressive stripping away of activities and normal defences combined with regression may have powerful consequences. I would suspect this might account for some of the trauma and mental health issues exposed by the new ‘Great Enclosure’ of Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. 

Psycho-spiritual confrontation and the associated effervescence may be the price to be paid for transformation, but it is controversial. In his study of charisma, the anthropologist Charles Lindholm excludes this option, because modernity fails to provide the supportive community in which the shamanic/charismatic may safely operate (Lindholm 1990)

B Bruno Latour Gifford Lectures (2017)   

The second example is the sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour’s Gifford Lectures, published under the title Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (French 2015, ET 2017). 

This is an extremely complex and fascinating account of the climate crisis conceived under the rubric of the ‘great acceleration’ and a project that in Latour’s words, dares to confront the ‘curse of Gaia’ in the third lecture, ‘Gaia a finally secular figure for nature’. Whilst the image and origins of Gaia in the fragments of Hesiod are touched upon by Latour, he hesitates because of the violence and chaos associated with this mythology in archaic Greek thought. 

In my estimation Latour’s lectures are of such a degree of complexity and his distancing from the work of James Lovelock and the latter’s Gaia hypothesis such as to inhibit premature clarity of action.  

C. The Planet in a Pebble: straight geology

In his book The Planet in a Pebble: A journey into Earth’s deep history (Zalasiewicz 2012), Jan Zalasiewicz provides a third example of earth-encounter and potential geopoesis as recovery as he propounds the implications of the Anthropocene, as in my estimation as a straight geoscientist.

This resonates with MacDiarmid’s recourse to geological particularity and the science from which he not only draws images and builds a process we may describe as early neo-shamanism, but also emphasis the sheer diversity and beauty of rocks and geological structures.    

All these examples point to affinities; there are, however some major issues that point to difference and threats.

We have argued on this lecture that On a Raised Beach engages the reader on a number of levels only some of which we have sketched out. We now turn all too briefly to some major concerns that pertain to the changing manifold of the categories that have since the time of Aristotle, and much later David Hume and Kant, been articulated in order to make sense of the structure of human self-understanding and world-construction. 

These concerns were central to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, be they in Scotland, Europe or North America. There remains conflict between a shamanic reading of Hugh MacDiarmid’s  On a Raised Beach or Kenneth White’s neo-shamanism and modernity, that can be understood as tensions between the rational and sensibly accessible world of science and normal experience on the one hand, and a world beyond the veil accessed at the limen towards which the aspirant individual moves. 

Now, however, a new dialectic emerging in ways that appear to absorb both aspects of thought and practice. This is the point at which a leap has to be made into processes undergoing acceleration under the impact of Covid-19.  

5 New dialectics I: virtuality, body – and ‘post-humanity’

Whilst the ‘otherworld’ of the shaman practitioner and notions of transcendence in mainline non-atheistic religions or spiritualities might have affinities in terms of the possibility of transcendence, both are threatened by the ambitious all-sufficiency of technology.    

Our dependence upon virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) has expanded in an extraordinary way under Covid-19 conditions. Yet, simultaneously and paradoxically drive for embodiment has proliferated and intensified in the interlinked global spirituality and wellbeing industries. 

These drives compete with each other dialectical tension rendered complex and ambiguous between physical and virtual embodiment. In the growing field of the philosophy of virtual reality VR and Cyborg culture (CC) it has become apparent that ancient conceptualisations of forms of transcendence pertaining to the individual and reflected upon since the pre-Socratics in the West and equally early in Vedic thought have in effect been absorbed. (Roberts 2019)

It is apparent that whilst some categories in traditional philosophy and theology are now rendered problematic by the availability of highly effective surrogates in VR and CC, the latter have plundered the former for the some of the conceptuality used to represent the enlargement of human capacities – or their displacement by artificial intelligence (AI0 (Roberts 2019).

The tension between VR/MR and the drive towards embodiment (see Neuromancer) and its consequences have been immeasurably radicalised by Covid-19. 

As the virtual and cyborg culture expand and proliferate so the measures taken to combat Covid-19 pandemic further challenge and limit the very possibility of creating the grounded, embodied communitas of the kind argued for by Arnold Van Gennep and Victor and Edith Turner in their and other studies of the ritual process.      

A brief and transient sense of community is what we aim to achieve momentarily today’s lecture through the virtual dimension. This is not the equivalent of what might be attained through the participation of embodied individuals in collective and material ritual enacted in ‘real’ space and time. 

Under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic the absence of viable categories of interpretation and the fragility of reliance upon information technology magnify the likelihood of panic thinking and the urge to escape into fear-stoked fantasies. Fact and fake are easily confused and therefore highly manipulable.

Under these conditions the relentless facticity, the sheer haecceitas of the stone held and felt in the hand grounds and anchors us both in the present and this connects us with the poet MacDiarmid long ago on the raised beach. You have been invited to hold a pebble in order to come closer to this experience.      

The now manifest tension between virtuality (VR) and embodiment is complex as mixed reality (MR) gradually encroaches and we become cyborgs. At this point the human imagination has led both theory and practice, in both literature and film. 

When human potential in embodied and virtual forms are increasingly interwoven then the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ is blurred. Under such conditions conspiracy theories and proliferating rage are the unnatural and unacceptable – but unsurprising – outcomes. 

We are confronted by the ‘posthuman condition’ which is another discussion (Pepperell, 2003).

6 New dialectics II: time, acceleration – and economy

I felt some relief that the delivery of this year’s Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture was not to take place in Panmure House. Even our very limited engagement with On a Raised Beach has left many points untouched, never mind explored, and the relationship of time and acceleration to economic maximisation is one such are of importance. 

My somewhat ambitious naming of Adam Smith and the tensions between geopoetics and political economy would require at the very least another lecture.     

Yes, however, Adam Smith’s epochal theorisation of the intellectual structure of the industrial system in political economy, and his articulation of the theory of moral sentiments leaves an ambiguous legacy ill at ease with the geopoetic impulse. We sketch some salient points. 

The transformation of global economic system has tied maximisation to the reduction of time and the nano-second in ways divorced from human participation and this serves a posthuman accelerator. 

Informational ‘flow’ became the ‘flood’ of ‘big data’; the constant development and wider application of artificial intelligence renders ordinary human effort redundant. 

Resistance as ‘slow time’ set against ‘acceleration’ is comparable to the contrast between the simple moment of grasping the stone and a new virtual spatio-temporal matrix in a post-human beyond. 

We are in effect reduced to silence….

Let us now, before concluding, pause briefly to consider Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, a text written at the time of what Karl Polanyi called ‘the Great Transformation’. 

‘The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition’, Adam Smith (1723-1790), Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Similarly, the Reverend Thomas Malthus wrote about population and boundaries with similar intent, to ease and legitimate the impact of transformation:   

‘By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio unless want and vice stop him. The increase in numbers is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. Population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks’, Thomas Malthus (1776- 1834), An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).  

These two classic passages invite critical reflection in the light (or darkness) of the Covid-19 pandemic. The acceleration and intensification of the pre-existing global problématique which has turned a complex crisis into an evolving catastrophe which demands the evolution of a world-view in which global indigeneity is accessed and enacted in ways that exceed the laudable goal of protecting the survival of indigenous peoples in their original locales. 

The discourse associated with James Lovelock’s seminal account of Gaia represents humanity as the ‘human plague’, and a controversial vision of humanity as an illness resonates uncomfortably with Malthus:  

Just as the human body uses a fever to fight off an infection, Gaia is raising Her temperature to expel a harmful parasite – humans. Unless humans renounce their destructive ways and rejoin the diverse community of living beings in Gaia’s loving embrace, then Gaia will be forced to act in order to secure Her supreme reign … the human population will be reduced to a few breeding pairs by the end of this century. (Lovelock 2019)

In such a vision the Covid-19 pandemic manifests as the act of Gaia, and this suggestion has evinced a ferocious response in the conspiracy zone. 

 The key words in Lovelock’s notorious declaration are, however, ‘renounce’ and ‘rejoin’.  How might renunciation and rejoining be furthered? 

 Adam Smith’s axiomatic assumption that hostile interests are mysteriously convergent in his vision of the spontaneous assurance of sympathy through the residual mythology and Providentialism of controversial ‘hidden hand’ is now highly implausible, even in its vestigial form of the ‘trickle-down theory’ associated with New Right Thatcherism (Roberts, 2001). 

Similarly, Malthus’ allusion to the ‘powerful and obvious checks’ could serve to support the human plague interpretation of the Gaia Hypothesis once the reinstatement of this version of the Divine Feminine gained traction.    

Huge issues arise at this juncture. Might a theory and practice of global indigeneity be developed given the realities of what James Lovelock has called the unsustainable ‘human plague’? 

Conclusion: A new ‘education of humanity’? (Lessing 1777)

There are moments in human history when radical change takes place that demands renewed vision. G. E. Lessing attempted such a renewal of vison in his tract of 1780, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of the Human Race).  How might we re-educate ourselves?

My present response would, for example, begin with ecological anthropology of Roy Rappaport (1984; 1999). In his posthumously published Ritual, Religion and the Making of Humanity (1999), Rappaport developed an intricate argument in which he applied to modernity lessons taken from his earlier research on a traditional culture which still exhibited complex and sustainable interactions with their environments (Rapport 1984).  

How, then, might we now draw these disparate threads together? The answer is with some difficulty. As regards ecology, in the mid and late twentieth century we were warned by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature of the growing environmental crisis which has now become an imminent catastrophe recognised by all but the obtuse. In the face of this catastrophic crisis a resurgence of interest in nature has precipitated an avalanche of concern expressed right across the arts. 

Now, paradoxically, there have to be ways of handling the new-born desire for Nature that now manifests in mass participation rather than ventures by elite individuals or self-selected minorities. The queues of those waiting to mount the summit of Snowden and the pollution of Highland forests with human excrement are examples close to hand. The need for a full ‘human ecology’ has moved from the periphery to the core of urgent concern. The work of earlier figures such as Patrick Geddes, and recently by Alastair MacIntosh and Michael Northcott has been exemplary but it is incomplete. 

Kenneth White’s work, like other examples of Scottish innovation, has thrived in exile. How may we bring it home on the assumption that the global must reconfigure its relation with the local?  How might we translate, anchor and operationalise the passion of the bard seen in Hugh MacDiarmid and Kenneth White into the workable in the context of the global emergency? 

In this lecture I have suggested that Hugh MacDiarmid’s epic poem On a Raised Beach might be appropriately understood as the rebirth on Scottish ground of such direct, transformative engagement. In this great work born, I believe, of an altered state of consciousness (ASC), there swirl geology, shamanic journeying, a critique of derogate patriarchal theology, traces of Christ in the wilderness, the dialectics of instasis tending to non-duality, and the project of the renewal of Scottish identity.  

Now, however, in the context of the global pandemic, MacDiarmid’s epic can help us to grasp and begin to understand that the task of geopoesis, world-making, Kenneth White’s ‘worlding’ – and beyond the individual – the ‘remaking of humanity’.  

As for me, I identify with the former preacher Jim Casey in John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Stripped of illusions and pretensions, he seeks the sacred in the particular that holds the whole. This search for the specificity is open to anyone who grasps a stone with full awareness. This is one reason I am drawn to Hugh MacDiarmid as I was to Donald MacKinnon.  

John Steinbeck, John Buchan and R. D. Laing, besides MacDiarmid confronted in different contexts what we construe as the wrath of Kali/Gaia. We will have to pass through the terror before we once more touch tenderness. For men, this will mean passing through much anger to grief.                        

Comprehensive symbolic renewal is required to meet the demands of the lust for nature. Now virtual encounters are deemed insufficient, and as humanity abandons what Kenneth White has called the ‘mass-mess’ and is pulled towards residual Nature it may tragically destroy the object of this rediscovered love. A new symbolic system and its intensification through the shamano-ritual matrix are required if the Liebestod of humanity and Nature triggered by the pandemic is to be mitigated. 

REFERENCES

Latour Bruno, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (See the Third Lecture, ‘Gaia a finally secular figure for nature’ (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

Lindholm, Charles, Charisma (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

Lindsey, Hal The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971).

Lovelock James, 2019 https://www.winterwatch.net/2019/01/james-lovelock-and-the-anti-human-gaia-subterfuge/.

MacDiarmid, Hugh, ‘On a Raised Beach’, Michael Grieve and W.R. Aitken (Eds.), The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978) Vol. 1, pp. 422-433. 

Macfarlane,  Robert, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/11/rereading-a-land-jacquet… Accessed 24.11.20.

MacKinnon, Donald M. The Problem of Metaphysics (Cambridge: CUP, 1974).

McManus. Tony, The Radical Field: Kenneth White and Geopoetics (Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2007).

Proust, Marcel at http://art.arts.usf.edu/content/articlefiles/2330-Excerpt%20from%20Remembrance%20of%20Things%20Past%20by%20Marcel%20Proust.pdf, accessed 29.10.20

Rappaport, Roy, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People.  (New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 1967/ 2nd Ed. 1984). 

Rappaport, Roy Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

Roberts R.H, Hope and its Hieroglyph: A Critical Decipherment of Ernst Bloch’s ‘Principle of Hope’ (Scholars Press, 1990).

Roberts, R. H., Barth and the Eschatology of Weimar’ in A Theology on Its Way: Essays on Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992).

Roberts, R.H., 2001, Article “Religion and Economic Life” in Neil J. Smelser and Paul M. Baltes (Editors-in-Chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, (Oxford: Elsevier, 2001), pp. 13028-13034.

Ruggie, John Gerrard, ‘On the Problem of “the Global Problematique”: What Roles for International Organizations?, Alternatives, 1980, accessed https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/030437548000500404 on 02/10/2020. 

Samuel, Geoffrey, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington, London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993) 

Samuel, Geoffrey, Mind, Body and Culture:  Anthropology and the Biological Interface (Cambridge: CUP, 1990).

Seed, John, Joanna Macey, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess, Thinking Like a Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 1988).

Whitworth, M. H., ‘Three Prose Sources for Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach”,’ Notes and Queries, 54 (2007), 175-77.

Zalasiewicz, Jan, The Planet in a Pebble: A journey into Earth’s deep history (Oxford OUP, 2012).

————————————————————————————————

Richard H. Roberts (Prof.), Honorary Fellow, Faculty of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh. r.h.roberts@stir.ac.uk. 

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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Scottish Centre for Geopoetics Residential Conference 2019

in association with
the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University
&
the Scottish Geodiversity Forum
at
Wiston Lodge near Biggar
Friday 14 – Sunday 16 June 2019

Expressing the Earth in the Year of Indigenous Languages

Call for Proposals

After the success of our 2017 Geopoetics Conference in Argyll we are seeking proposals for workshops, talks and performances at our next Residential Conference 2019 from Friday 14 – Sunday 16 June 2019 at Wiston Lodge near Biggar. The theme will be Expressing the Earth in the Year of Indigenous Languages e.g. with reference to rivers, forests and hills. The deadline for proposals to be sent to me is 31 January 2019.

Wiston Lodge is situated in old woods near Tinto Hill and outdoor workshops would be especially suited here as well as indoor talks, discussions and performances of poetry, prose and music.

Workshop proposals from those who wish to take forward workshops they provided in 2017 would be very welcome. There will be more time in the 2019 programme for undertaking creative work emerging from the workshops.

Unfortunately we can’t pay performers, speakers or workshop leaders but we have kept the conference costs to a minimum.

The conference starts at 11am on Friday 14 June 2019 and ends at 16.00 on Sunday 16 June. The £135 cost includes all conference sessions, 2 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 2 evening meals and 2 nights’ shared accommodation. Camping is also possible. Full details to follow.

The Intercultural Research Centre (IRC) addresses key intercultural issues arising from the changing global context. It makes original contributions to the study of interculturality with particular reference to dimensions of living culture in European societies. The Centre’s particular focus is on comparative work emphasising the applied dimensions of culture, with “culture” defined broadly in anthropological terms.

The Scottish Geodiversity Forum is a small but active organisation dedicated to promoting Scotland’s geology and its influence on all aspects of Scotland’s culture, environment and landscape. We have published Scotland’s Geodiversity Charter which has attracted wide support across Scotland, and supported projects such as multi-disciplinary sailing voyages in the Hebrides celebrated the rich legacy of Hugh Miller, The 51 Best Places to see Scotland’s Geology and the two Hugh Miller Writing Competitions (read the winning entries here).
We are delighted to support this conference, and look forward to exploring the interplay of geological and human activity that has created today’s Scotland in all it’s diversity and complexity and the ways that this can be expressed and celebrated.
Angus Miller, Chair, Scottish Geodiversity Forum.


Tinto Hill from Wiston Lodge

Advance booking: to book your place send a cheque for £20 made out to Scottish Centre for Geopoetics to David Francis 214 Portobello High Street Edinburgh EH15 2AU. Bookings made before 31 January 2019 will receive a discount on the total cost.

Stravaig#7 Call for Essays, Poems, Images and Artwork on the theme Living on the Edge e.g. coastlines, islands, the sea.
Deadline Thursday 31 January 2019.


Living on the Edge

We received more essays, poems and images than ever before for Stravaig#6 on the theme Expressing the Earth. You can read those selected here. We decided to hold over some of the work submitted and if we notified you of this you do not need to submit it again.

As well as being available on our website, Stravaig#7 will be printed in a limited edition free to contributors, members of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and attendees at future geopoetics events.

Essays must be under 4,000 words attached as a separate Word document. Up to 6 images (jpegs only) to accompany them are very welcome.

Up to 4 poems attached as a separate Word document (4 pages maximum) may be submitted.

Up to 4 images and artwork (4 pages maximum) should be submitted as jpeg attachments.

We regret that submissions that do not adhere to these rules cannot be considered.

Sustainable Communities Heritage Festival 2018 
exploring sustainable approaches to community heritages

Thursday 28 November at South Pod, EBS, Heriot-Watt University
14.00 – 15.30 The Magic and the Myths: Co-Production of Heritage Projects
Cultural Heritage and Community Engagement Research Group Round-Table
(book here)
15.45 – 17.15 Making Heritage Futures
Katriina Siivonen (UTU) / Ullrich Kockel (HWU/LfSS)
(book here)

Saturday 30 November 2018 at 19.30
The folk oratorio ‘Rivers of our Being’ will have its world premiere at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh. This is the only performance and a unique opportunity to experience research-by-practice output from the H2020-funded CoHERE project that the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University has been involved in.

Taking inspiration from the rivers of Europe, the piece invites audiences to take a unique auditory journey across different European cultural heritages with composer Prof. Valdis Muktupavels, performed by students of the Music Section, Newcastle University and conducted by Dr Simon McKerrell, with guest musicians John Kenny (trombone), Helen Beauchamp (Cello), Imogen Bose-Ward (Fiddle) and soloists Prof. Ruta Muktupavela and Naomi Harvey.
Book tickets here.


Rivers of our Being

Saturday 8 December 2018 from 09.30 – 17.00
at Sanctuary, Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh
EICSP Day Conference on Scottish Ecopoetics, Geopoetics and Cosmopoetics
Discuss their common ground and differences with Ullrich Kockel, Máiréad Nic Craith, Philip Tonner, Ian Wight, Ramona Fotiade, Lorn Macintyre, Cara Hagan Gelber and Norman Bissell.
Book your place here.

Saturday 29 December 2018 at 7.30 pm Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne at Dunoon Burgh Hall.
Mairi’s adventures with Scotland’s most famous song, a theatre show with live music, animation and movement that follows on from her 5 star reviewed show Pulse.

PAST EVENT
Geopoetics Day 3 November 2018

Mairi McFadyen’s Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture has received marvellous reviews:

  • “Scotland (and beyond) needs more of this tone, reflection & imagination. Our conventional ways of thinking & organising our societies are broken. This beautiful essay by Mairi McFadyen looks at what it is to be human, geopoetics & the need for radical hope.” Gerry Hassan.
  • “Some ideas take their time to travel from the margins to the centre – the urgency of the times pulls them in, newly making them relevant. Such it is with the concept of geopoetics … What is interesting about geopoetics in 2018 is the way it’s being taken up by a group of young scholars, artists & activists in Scotland, who want to use geopoetics (and Kenneth White’s work) as a way to frame and name their agency, facing hyper-capitalism and climate crisis.” The Alternative UK.
  • “What an intellectually thrilling text from Mairi McFadyen—this generation’s take on Ken White’s geopoetics, in the anthropocene age (& our deep adaptation to it).” Pat Kane.
  • Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics – a tour de force by Mairi McFadyen.” Bella Caledonia.

You can read it here.

A lively and interesting day was had by all. Many thanks to everyone who took part and contributed to making this another very successful Geopoetics Day.

 


Stravaiging the Water of Leith to South Leith for talks, discussion and a ceilidh

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The following is written as if spoken. It is, however, a reconstruction from subsequent memory, plus some elaborations to what I said at the conference – Expressing the Earth, organised by the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands on the Isle of Seil, 23 June 2017. The pictures are a small sample of what were used during the talk. For greater detail, including my use of Kenneth White’s poetry in my activist work, see Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum, 2001. My latest book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn 2016), shows in an implicit way the impact of geopoetics on my work in the course of exploring what I think of as “an ecology of the imagination”.

I have just come back from speaking on the Isle of Eigg. There, on June 12, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the buyout into a community land trust. It is the second such birthday this year. A few months earlier, we had celebrated the twentieth year of the GalGael Trust in the Greater Govan area of Glasgow. Our people there build wooden boats. These reconnect an urban people with their wider coastal heritage. We see our work as geopoetics applied, and since the early days, have been honoured to have had Kenneth White as our patron.

One of our strap lines is “Reconnecting coastal communities”, and we see our boats and the River Clyde as metaphors for life, metaphors for building or rebuilding human life. It happens that “Reconnecting with the River” is the title of one of White’s short poems that opens with a quote from the sixteenth century Scots poet, Alexander Montgomerie.1

“As I looked me alone/ I saw a river rin ….”

White’s words that follow speak to the condition of so many of our folks – lives that have been blighted by poverty, but uplifted by humanity; the dreich offset by glory.

A late afternoon in Govan
at the junction of the Clyde and the Kelvin
rain falling on sullen stone

floating on the dark, dank waters
one lone mute swan.

It rather thrills me that Hilda Ibrahim, the mother of Gehan Macleod who co-funded the GalGael Trust in 1997 with her late husband, Colin, is today the retired schoolteacher who chairs the Eigg Residents’ Association. There we glimpse the Möbius strip that turns the urban to the rural, the rural to the urban, reconnecting the flows of life between our communities.

Veteran land campaigners at Eigg’s 20th Anniversary Celebrations, 12 June 2017: Camille Dressler, Maighread Foxley, Karen Helliwell, Michael Foxely, Michael Hutchison and vintage Talisker (Picture: Alastair McIntosh).

Eigg’s Part in Modern Scottish Land Reform
Today, however, my focus is to be rural, for I was one the four trustees who founded the original Isle of Eigg Trust in 1991. My swansong in 1997 was to sign over the balance of the £1.6 million in trust funds that had been raised in a worldwide campaign by the resident community. With this, the island was purchased by the more fit-for-purpose Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, set up to represent a partnership between the islanders, Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Eigg was the first full scale modern community buyout – full scale in the sense of being more than the crofting (or small scale agricultural) tenants alone, such as had been the case with the Assynt Trust. The drama that unfolded on Eigg helped to set a pattern and example that has inspired many buyouts since. Today, it receives visitors from all over the world who come to learn about its community-run renewables electricity grid, social and ecological housing, the ecological regeneration of nature, small business development such as the micro-brewery and an ever-growing wealth of experience around the gritty task of doing community. In that task one is, not least, forever on a learning curve of recognising and processing the conflicts that are inevitable in being human. “Towards the human”, to borrow from the title of Iain Crichton Smith’s collected essays, is always (in the work of making community) the guiding star that nods to incompleteness, yet points towards an opening of the way.

On a national scale, twenty years on, we now have land reform legislation in place, a £10 million per annum government Land Fund financed by imposing business rates on sporting estates, and over half a million acres of Scotland now held by dozens of local land trusts. That’s getting on for three per cent of our land area, and the Scottish Government has set the goal of doubling it by 2020. The tiny channels that campaigns like Eigg, Assynt and Gigha opened up have become the conduits through which a much more mainstream political flow has followed.

Understanding Bardic Politics
That brings me to the poetics, to Hamish Henderson’s dictum that “poetry becomes a people.” As activists for social, environmental and perhaps other forms of change, ours can be a bardic politics. The politics of a people resourced by their poetry. Ours is not to stand in the mainstream, but to open out fresh conduits of the mind. We may not have much to dig with. We may only have a teaspoon. But that can make a start upon the most compacted soil.

I remember, back in the days when I worked in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, a dear Australian priest called John Flynn who was building an airstrip. It was to serve the village of Hauabango, to which he had devoted a large part of his life. Fr John had no mechanical diggers with which to level a slither of the mountainside. Instead, he used a technique that he nicknamed “water mining”. He got the people digging narrow channels using spades. Into these, the local stream was diverted. When it flooded to a spate, the channels widened and the water also carried off unwanted earth.

That’s how poetry too can function. It whittles out the tiny runnels into which a greater flow of political process can subsequently follow. It is why, as Morton Bloomfield and Charles Dunn have shown, both in the Celtic world and in African tribal societies the function of the bards has been to work a “verbal magic”. Daniel Corkery has shown how the bardic schools thereby saved the soul of Ireland during the centuries of British colonisation. As Colm O’Baoill puts it, speaking in a Scottish Highland context, the bards were “the political brains” behind the chiefs. To that, I would only want to add that they were also spiritual conduits of the people.2


“We may not have much to dig with. We may only have a teaspoon” – Cartoon courtesy of the Leeds activist, Matt Carmichael.

Now, the cynics say “you can’t eat poetry”, but I want to put it to you today that land lies at the base of the food chain. As a storyteller once said long ago, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Whether with the Assynt crofters’ buyout, or in the example involving Kenneth White that I am about to give, poetry has played a role in modern Scottish land reform. Personally, I would call it the lifeblood. I use the term “poetry” to mean both poems, but also, the wider sense of creative quiddity that infuses all true arts. And by “true” art forms, I mean those that come from somewhere deeper than the ego – those that emerge from the collective levels of consciousness. Those which are, as the Hebrew prophets might have said as they railed against the injustices of landlordism, moved by inspiration from beyond our conscious ken. Moved by the echoes of a distant tide that draws us into ever-deepening openings of life’s way.

I think of a time during the Eigg buyout campaign – it was in 1996 – when, to get the fundraising rolling, the broadcaster and activist Lesley Riddoch organised a gig called Not the Landowner’s Ball. It was held in the Assembly Halls of Edinburgh. The late (as is now) Angus Grant of Shooglenifty whipped his fiddle into spindrift spirals of shamanic ecstasy. The crowd responded. I have never before, nor never since, danced in such a frenzy. This was the magic happening. This, we knew, was Eigg “happening” – manifesting from some realm invisible before it manifested outwardly. That, by the way, is how the spiritual materialises, how poetry becomes a people. I doubt that any who were there that night would not have felt the bedrock skirl of Scotland’s metamorphosis.


Not the Landowner’s Ball.

Geopoetics and Landed Power
The irony of my setting this framing is that I once asked Kenneth White if he considered his work to be political. He said not. But poetry can be a seed crystal in a saturated solution. Such was so to the four of us who founded the original Isle of Eigg Trust in 1991. We were the Scoraig crofter Tom Forsyth, the artist Liz Lyon, the Lochwinnoch sheep farmer Bob Harris and myself. As we drew up the manifesto, Liz drew our attention to one of Kenneth’s poems, and he kindly gave permission for it to be included in the published booklet that was distributed to all homes on Eigg and far beyond. Here it is.3

My Properties

I’m a landowner myself after all –
I’ve got twelve acres of white silence
up at the back of my skull.

Now, a poem like that, a Haiku or however it would be classified, is more than just a ditty. It is a power cable. Its effect, for the four of us at least, was to mainline legitimacy. As Bob is no longer on this Earth, as Tom is in an Ullapool care home, and as Liz drew back from the Trust soon after it was launched, let me speak for myself. What emerges from the latency of that white silence comes a claim of right. A clean sheet of paper on which to write a different title deed. A claim that we, in our claim of right to freedom, are all the “owners” of the land; or as I prefer to say, “landholders”.

Landed power can lay its claim to no such charter. It lacks the moral authority of standing, to borrow from Hamish again, in the “carrying stream” of the cultural flow.4 For me at least, Kenneth’s poem became a white steed on which to ride into the fray, from which to perpetrate our tactic of buying Eigg cheaply through market spoiling. After all, what rich man would want to buy a holiday island stuffed with restless natives?

There was something else that Kenneth’s work gave me. It was a sense of what Tom Forsyth, drawing on the work of the quantum physicist David Bohm, called “the implicate order”. The implicate order is the underlying realm out of which the “explicate order” – the material world of particles and energies – might be said to emerge. With his permission, I quoted often, including when I came to write Soil and Soul, from his poem, “Walking the Coast”.5

for the question is always
how
out of all the chances and changes
to select
the features of real significance
so as to make
of the welter
a world that will last
and how to order
the signs and symbols
so they will continue
to form new patterns
developing into
new harmonic wholes
so to keep life alive
in complexity
and complicity
with all of being –
there is only poetry

(Unfortunately the original formatting of the poem cannot be reproduced here.)

If the “landowner” poem affirmed legitimacy, these lines from “Walking the Coast” affirmed the emergence of vision. Put it like this. Imagine trailing up and down between the Central Belt and Eigg for meetings, sometimes hitchhiking on very little money, sometimes secretly crashing out for the night in the unlocked St Bride’s Church at Ballachulish to break the journey. And imagine Tom Forsyth, sleeping literally in ditches wrapped in his yellow oilskins as he criss-crossed the country doing drystane dyking work to raise some £3,000 legal and other costs of setting up the Eigg Trust.

Imagine being ridiculed in the press for proposing that ordinary people, functioning as healthy communities, could be landholders. Imagine walking into Glencoe at night, just off a ferry late back to Arisaig, wondering if you’ll get another lift before night falls. And then, imagine that white horse cantering from out the skull, complicit in complexity, “to form new patterns … with all of being.”

Sure, you can’t eat poetry. But you can ride it. And ride it hard we did.

Trustees of the original Isle of Eigg Trust, back in our Taliban days – Bob Harris, Tom Forsyth, Alastair McIntosh & Liz Lyon (Glasgow Herald, 1991).

Superquarry Poetics
What’s more, in the last couple of decades of the 20th century we were in a climate in Scotland when poetics were quickening at the grassroots. The music of Runrig, Dougie MacLean, Karen Matheson and some of the Irish groups were wake-up calls. On Eigg, as in many other small West Highland communities, the Fèis (“feast”) movement had spread out from Barra and was reconnecting people to their cultures, their music and their untold stories.6 Partly inspired by a worldwide resurgence in the consciousness of indigenous peoples, this sat comfortably with “world music” and was inclusive of whoever chose to belong by participating.

For me, as Eigg was unfolding as the weft of this wider leap in warp speed, so too was the Isle of Harris superquarry campaign. Roineabhal is the highest and most majestic mountain that graces the National Scenic Area that covers South Harris. In 1991 it fell under the threat to turn it into the biggest roadstone quarry in the world. For me, and I must stress that this is a personal take, what was happening on Eigg interwove with what was happening on Harris, and also with campaigns like the M77 “Pollok Free State” motorway campaign that evolved into the GalGael Trust.

It took until 1997 for Eigg to come under community landholding, and 2004 for the superquarry campaign to be decisively won as the result of a massive, multi-layered environmental campaign with many actors. Throughout that decade-and-a-half, however, geopoetics was exploding into consciousness in Scotland. Kenneth White himself was resident in Brittany, but his patch was held and cultivated largely thanks to the efforts of the late Tony McManus and Norrie Bissell. Other figures who breathed life into geopoetic events of that era include Rachel Blow, Richard Browne, John Hart, Nanon McManus, Bill Taylor, Jennie Renton and Graham Urquhart.

I remember how my Quaker friend, the wooden boat designer, Iain Oughtred, plied me with copies of the publications of the Open World Poetics group and bootlegged recordings of White’s recitations. Similarly so, Colin Geddes, the grandson of Patrick. I had been a science student in my youth. I was ignorant of poetry, but friends like Iain and the botanical writer, Tess Darwin, took it on themselves to complete my education. Whether it was Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, the emergent young Gaelic poets in translation or Kenneth White, the blue touch papers that they lit went off as rockets in my mind.

Neither was it a solitary experience. During the 1990s there was a positive buzz around geopoetics, largely stimulated by Tony’s and Norrie’s events and publications that put a saddle on the galloping back of poetry such as amateurs, like myself, could mount and use to get a grip. It was not just the written word. It was also the remarkable tonal qualities of White reciting his work, and the mind-boggling span of his talks during his fairly frequent visits back to Scotland.

I had just started teaching at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Human Ecology. Murdo Macdonald, later to become the professor of History of Scottish Art at Dundee University, was another mentor who led me to draw deeply upon geopoetics. Issue 88 of the Edinburgh Review, of which he was the editor, carried my Isle of Eigg Trust launch address. The article that immediately follows was White’s essay, “Elements of Geopoetics”. Reflecting on the work of Henri Pourrat and Walt Whitman, White said:

“There you have almost pure geopoetics…. What matters is what’s there, it’s in it – in those rock-piles – that the poetics lie.”

Over on the next page stands a single line, ending ineffably in an ellipsis. I have used this many times as a proxy definition of the world to which White opened up our minds:

“Poetry, geography – and a higher unity: geopoetics…”7

It was to me a balm of inspiration. The superquarry scene was looking grim. The major environmental agencies – the Friends of the Earth Scotland, WWF, RSPB, and all the rest of them were trying all the conventional means – the economic arguments against the quarry, the ecological ones, the social and you name it. Somehow the rationality of the impending government public enquiry wasn’t going deep enough. White and MacDiarmid ran side-by-side in my mind. “I lift a stone; it is the meaning of life I clasp,” says MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach”. And there, in the old master’s footsteps, White the shaman monk weaves his spirit with the Celtic monks as he wanders, as a nomad, into “Labrador”.


Eigg sales brochure – it really was marketed by an islands brokerage called Vladi Private Islands.

My reader today must forgive me if this sounds a heady mix. It was. Geopoetics became pivotal to the curriculum of the MSc degree that I directed. We had White visit us in the human ecology classes at 15 Buccleuch Place. Other times, I’d play extracts of him reading from his epic poem, “Scotia Deserta”. It changed lives.

I had a science background, proof matters, so indulge me if I give an example. My then student, now an environmental lawyer, Jamie Whittle, wrote up his MSc dissertation as a book, White River. It is about the human ecology of his native bioregion, the catchment valley of the River Findhorn. As he reaches the end of a pilgrimage in which he walked up to the source, then paddled back down to where the Findhorn meets the North Sea, Whittle reflects:

What I am beginning to sense is that consciousness is infinite. Looking back at how trapped inside the glass bottle of my own ego I used to be … [I now see that] it is only by quieting the ego that we may have the awareness to experience the world more deeply, more groundedly and more colourfully.

It was the poem “Labrador” by Kenneth White that summed up much of this outward, expansive, exploratory movement to me most coherently:

I lived and moved
as I had never done before
became a little more than human even
knew a large identity

the tracks of caribou in the snow
the flying of wild geese
the red Autumn of the maple tree
bitten by frost
all these became more real to me
more really me
than my very name

I found myself saying things like
‘at one with the spirit of the land’
but there was no ‘spirit’, none
that was outworn language
and this was a new world
and my mind was, almost, a new mind

Whittle reflects how Labrador “captures those first footsteps into a transpersonal world.” It had carried him into an age “beyond rampant industrial growth and collateral environmental damage.” It opened to “a new space beyond neurotic frenzy.” Such is the space, he concluded, “that can be found when we connect with the larger non-human world.”8 Some would call that ecopsychology. Others, ecopoetics. Naess called it Deep Ecology. Whittle found it here in Scotland through White’s geopoetics.

As part of Jamie Whittle’s studies, he and I had gone to Harris and climbed Mount Roineabhal together. The eagle has its eyrie there. In my dreams and visions the eagle of Roineabhal had grown in an imaginal realm. One day, as I struggled with my small contributions to the superquarry campaign, a colleague from America had said, “Why don’t you call Stone Eagle?”

Poetry precipitated necessity. Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, then the war chief of the Mi’Kmaq Nation in Nova Scotia, had been credited with stopping a similar superquarry at Kluscap Mountain, the sacred mountain of their territory. To cut a long story short, he answered my call and agreed to give testimony at the Scottish Office (government) public inquiry in 1994.

The media went ballistic. “Stone Eagle flies in to stop superquarry” ran the headlines. The detail can be read elsewhere.9 Suffice to say here that the chief’s testimony, along with mine, and that of Professor Macleod of the Free Church College all on the same platform – all that triple whammy – merited a single paragraph in the inquiry’s multi-volume report.

Stone Eagle Flies in to Roineabhal (courtesy of Murdo Macleod, 1994)

We had zero legal traction. But that was not the point. We were doing poetry, and theology; not law. We were quite consciously seeking impact in a different universe of discourse. It had massive traction, both in PR terms as the TV and press cameras zoomed in, and in terms of deepening local thinking about the issues at stake. Much of the Isle of Harris is now owned by community land trusts. The place has moved from falling derelict, to thriving. The young are coming back. There is affordable social housing, business units, renewable energy and jobs created by a newly energised economy and culture. All that, without the superquarry. Who said “you can’t eat poetry”? Who … said it? I’d like to know who tried to lead us astray with that put-down. Who tried to close our eyes?

To borrow from Allen Ginsburg’s Howl,

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”10

The sphinx failed. The superquarry, like landlordism on Eigg, was thwarted. Why? There are many reasons, many winds that blew in different directions at different levels of the stratosphere. But one reason stands out for me. The sphinx failed, because it never knew that we, too, were landowners.

We, too, had twelve acres of white silence up the back of our skulls.

The Shaman Dancing on the Glacier
In appreciating White it is not my intention to set him on a pedestal. As with all prophetic figures, there are criticisms. There is in any generalist, who sets specifics into the context of greater wholes, always the question of intellectual overreach; of what, as Pierre Jamet characterises it, “his detractors call mere name-dropping.”11 I have heard it suggested that White is perhaps over concerned with his own legacy, and I have noticed a fastidiousness in how he likes his work to be described. But those flaws, if flaws they are, can arise from artistic necessity, and from out of faithfulness to that which is being carried. To me, it is striking that White’s middle name is Dewar. It means, “steward”. In Scottish tradition the Dewars were the stewards, or custodians, of holy relics. The name derives from deòiridh or deòraidh which means “pilgrim” or “nomad”. White, now an octogenarian, has long championed “intellectual nomadism”. One of his books has the evocative title, Pilgrim of the Void. In the course of writing this piece I needed to confirm his middle name. I mentioned these interpretations, and he answered: “I am aware of that Gaelic meaning and tradition.”12

Anent the cost and even the peccadilloes that may result from the gravity of what we carry, I recall an incident when Chief Stone Eagle came to Scotland. I had taken him to several of the isles. At one point, I felt the need to apologise for the behaviour of a certain tradition bearer who had let us down by having had too much to drink. “Don’t you apologise for old (so-and-so),” the chief rebuked me. “You’d be drinking too if you were carrying what he carries.” As Cairns Craig has remarked, “White remains somewhere in the margins of modern Scottish literature and yet if there is one Scottish writer with a truly European reputation, it is him.”13 There may be ways in which he has contributed to that marginalisation. A prophet finds it hard to work from home, just as “home” finds the prophet trying in its midst.

That said, White’s work would never have reached so many of us were it not for the people and movements that surrounded him. I have observed an immense generosity of spirit in the geopoetics movement. I single out what I know best, specifically, the graciousness that has characterised the endeavours of Tony McManus and Norrie Bissell. Norrie, after Tony’s untimely passing, has carried forward the earlier work of Open World Poetics into the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics with its online journal, Stravaig. That word, delightfully, means, “to wander aimlessly”; and one glimpses here a Labradorian aimlessness where aims themselves are stripped back down as “outworn language”.

From where might this nomadic stravaig come in White’s psyche and his writing? I sense a clue within the title of his essay, “A Shaman Dancing on the Glacier”. It appears in the collection, On Scottish Ground, but the version I had long worked with first appeared in the arts newspaper, Artwork, in 1991 just as Eigg and the superquarry campaigns were born. That title alone was enough to impact heavily on me. Why? Because always for the activist, a pressing question when the going gets costly, is: “Why am I doing this?” With issues that concern the land, one answer is the chthonic imperative, the calling of the Earth itself, working through the chambers of an ecology of the imagination. That is the field, the grounding, of shamanic awareness.

White opens the said essay by telling how, at one point during a symposium on Burns, Beuys and Beyond – the figure of the artist in (modern) society, he was asked for the title of his impending lecture. He says that the shamanic imagery “leaped in to my mind with all the inevitability of dictation from the subconscious.” That, he concedes, “is another way of saying that my title may sound a bit surrealistic. I didn’t understand it very well at first myself, but, as I worked away, I came to understand it more.”14 Such are the dynamics of shamanism; here, the antithesis of plans of action, performance indicators and managed outcomes. Such shamanic stravaiging is of the essence of art. Issues such as land reform, superquarries or motorway protests become the stages of much wider dramas, a deeper and more basic call to consciousness of what is human, and to that in nature which is not-just-human .

In his essay, “The Archaic Context”, White tells how the first poem that he wrote – he was around nineteen at the time – was called “Precentor Seagull”. A precentor in a Scots Presbyterian context is the leader in the singing of the Gaelic Psalms. He muses,

“That first poem of mine was a shaman-poem. I was a shaman without a tribe.”

Kenneth White (from Wikipedia, by Esby, at the “Comédie du Livre”, Montpellier, 2009)

Like MacDiarmid at his best, it is the shamanic calling that White shares with his readers; that of the nomad walker between the worlds, the worlds of materiality and spirit, where one foot stands in each realm, held in equipoise. In his classic study, the Romanian ethnographer Mircea Eliade concludes that “the shaman’s essential role” is “the defence of the psychic integrity of the community.” It is, indeed, a dewar’s role. She or he, Eliade surmises, “is able to see [in the supernatural world] what is hidden and invisible to the rest.” Here, “poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom,” in which “the purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that … reveals the essence of things.”

As such, the shamanic function is to “stimulate and feed the imagination, demolish the barriers between dream and present reality [and] open windows upon worlds inhabited by the gods, the dead and the spirits.”15 The American mythologist Joseph Campbell arrived at the same conclusion through his study of the heroic archetype. “The effect of the successful adventure of the hero,” he concluded, “is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world.”16 That is what distinguishes shamanic art, sacred art, from narcissistic forms of self-expression.

How far is White aware that his work might answer to this function? I can imagine him smiling, shyly, with slight embarrassment at the suggestion. I can imagine his unease at my emphasis here on “the spirit”, and at my crediting his work with having a political impact. In other ways, I suspect that our “dewar” is very aware of these things. Everyone who walks between the worlds feels the tension between what is safe in being rarefied, and what can have a power upon the material plane that can be frightening in the responsibility that it carries. Think of the slow, deliberative, swings of energy from one foot to the other in the piper’s gait when playing pibroch. Think of the gaze of onlookers from the dress circle – bemused, puzzled, discombobulated – as evening dawns the dreaming of the call of great migrations. They can stone the prophets, you know, as well as cheer them on.

In another of the essays, “Into the White World”, our stravaiger notes that “what Chinese taoist thought offers us is ontological re-sourcing.” This, the nature of being, is with what “we are concerned in poetry, which is why poetry, in its higher instances, has always seemed to be on the edge of Western civilization, not an integral part of it.” Here is Kant’s “noumenal world” in counterpoint to the uncontested “phenomenal world”. It is, says White, this noumenal (based on the experience of the ontological) …

which is absent from so much of Western poetry … but which is forever present in the poetry of the East. ‘The ultimate excellence of poetry’, writes Yen Yu (China, thirteenth century) ‘consists in one thing: entering the spirit. If poetry can succeed in doing this, it will have reached the limit and cannot be surpassed.’ To enter the spirit is to enter the world (the ‘real life’, the absence of which Rimbaud was to decry in the West.) We are badly in need of poetry that ‘has a world’.

To have a world! There stands the reason why the politics of land reform is bound in with the poetics of consciousness. “Again, I am not suggesting that we celebrate any mountain goddess,” writes White, in an almost anxious breath; a wariness, perhaps, of transgressing one boundary too many as he draws his “Shaman” essay to a close. Rather:

“I am suggesting that we try and get back an earth-sense, a ground sense, and a freshness of the world such as those men, those Finn-men, knew when they moved over an earth from which the ice had just recently receded.

This is the dawn of geopoetics.”

In that line we hear the piper stepping at the gates. A paradox of White is that Precentor Seagull’s very act of precenting seems at odds with his “professed atheism”; an atheism, observes Jamet, that “still remains dialectically attached to what he professes to have emerged from long ago” of his Presbyterian upbringing.17 That paradox for White, like with some of the Gaelic poets of the 20th century, must perhaps remain unresolved. However, a generation or two further down the line a way has cleared that lets the sun climb higher in the sky. To be a nomad is one thing. To return as prodigals from the wandering is another; yet that is what is happening when the younger generations of today reconnect, as they are able to do, with lands from which their forbears had been alienated.

That is why, in 2018, Eigg is to be given a special focus in Celtic Connections. As the festival’s director, Donald Shaw told The Herald: “It is good for us to celebrate Eigg, quite an amazing achievement … in stablilising a community … and they have used music in a powerful way.”18

What Will We Leave?
I close with a cameo. In 2016 a group of women issued an album that they composed together on the Isle of Eigg. Called Songs of Separation, one of them, called “Soil and Soul”, was written by Rowan Rheingans after reading my book about the Eigg and superquarry campaigns.19

In her lyrics we find no reticence of celebration of the mountain goddess. Here, from Eigg “the Island of the Big Women”, the spiritual feminine is freed of self-conscious reticence.

There’s a woman in the mountain
there’s a woman in the hill
there’s a woman in the mountain
who knows this place well

There’s a bird that’s circling
and then roosting and watching
every trickle unfolding
every stream separating

Into soil and soul
soul and sea
what will we leave, when we leave?
What will we leave, when we leave? ….

I think how Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from the mountaintop, but was not himself allowed to enter. So might it be with Kenneth White’s nomadism. That was the demanding task of his generation. It is for a younger generation to take the final steps. Theirs is the future for the making. Theirs to choose, “What will we leave …?”


Eigg residents symbolically walk ashore to their own island, Independence Day, 12 June 1997 (Photo courtesy of Murdo Macleod)

I started off this lecture by telling that I’d just come back from the twentieth anniversary celebrations on Eigg. My part, and Kenneth White’s indirect part, were but tiny fragments of a massive undertaking involving many actors, most of them unsung. There was one thing from the week of partying that left me feeling incredibly satisfied. In the original Isle of Eigg Trust launch address, the one that was delivered on the island on Friday, 25th October, 1991, and was later published side-by-side with White’s essay, “Elements of Geopoetics”, in the Edinburgh Review, I had said:20

“This Trust offers the prospect that when a future visitor asks your children who owns Eigg, they will reply, not a German factory magnate, English pop star, Swiss banker, Saudi oil sheik, Dutch syndicate, aristocratic heir, racing car driver, insurance company or any other sort of “laird”, but simply, “Us … held in trust for people and nature”.

The back page of the islanders’ anniversary brochure, handed out to guests on the 12th June, 2017, has a picture of the school. A dozen or so children are playing football in the foreground. Emblazoned across the page is the proud caption:21

“The current island directors on the Trust were all children at the time of the buyout.”

I ask my question, one last time.

I ask it in honour of the work of Kenneth Dewar White, and in honour of all those who have aided the study and practice of geopoetics.

Who said “you can’t eat poetry”?

Who … said it?

 

Endnotes

1 Kenneth White, Open World: The Collected Poems 1960-2000, Polygon, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 47.
2 Full discussion and references in Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press, 2001, chapter 6.
3 We misquoted “skull” as “mind”, and that misquote has subsequently been replicated many times elsewhere. Apologies, Ken. It was Liz’s artistic eye that found the poem, and I’ve often wondered if she might have given it a subtle tweak to tone down the elemental rawness. The original is in White’s Open World, ibid., p. 99.
Addendum: On 27 March 2018 I received a response to this paper by email from Kenneth White. Anent this point, he wrote: “No Liz (Lyon) is innocent of tweaking that line in the poem. ‘At the back of my mind’ is a common enough phrase, and I like using common phrases while loading them at times with uncommon names. So ‘up at back of my mind’ was what stood in the original text. Then I realised two things, one, that ‘skull’ would be more elemental, going right into the bone. And ‘skull’ also gave me a neat little rhyme, or half-rhyme if you like, with ‘all’. I don’t go out of my way to rhyme (the poetics I’m interested in leaves that to songs) and never overdo it, except for fun, but if one slips in quietly on the side, it would be ungracious to sniff at it. So ‘up at the back of my skull’ is now, the definitive, canonical version.”
4 “Hamish Henderson (1919 – 2002)”, Scottish Poetry Library,
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/hamish-henderson.
5 “Walking the Coast” in Kenneth White, The Bird Path, Penguin/Mainstream, London/Edinburgh, p. 42. I have also used this poem in the exploration of “meaning” in the theory of social science research, see the second of my chapter contributions to Radical Human Ecology (Ashgate/Routledge), Farnham, 2012, p. 253; online at http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/articles/2012-Radical-Human-Ecology-McIntosh.pdf. I see this as a paradigmatic stanza of poetry, one that could be seen partly as an outcome of postmodern fluidity of thought, but also as a restraint upon it, even a rebuke to soulless deconstruction; a calling to a higher and Zen-like sense of the ordering of reality. I first encountered the quoted stanza in a publication of Scottish Churches’ Action for World Development, thus providing a nod towards the tangential religious impact of White’s work.
6 See http://www.feisean.org/en/feisean-en/what-is-a-feis/.
7 Kenneth White, “Elements of Geopoetics,” Edinburgh Review, 88, Summer 1992, pp. 163-178.
8 Jamie Whittle, White River: a Journey up and down the River Findhorn, Sandstone Press, Highland Scotland, 2007, pp. 144-145.
9 Primarily, in Soil and Soul where the superquarry saga runs in parallel with that of Eigg and the searching issues of our times.
10 Allen Ginsberg, Howl, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1956, p. 21.
11 Pierre Jamet, “Kenneth White and Religion” in Grounding a World: Essays on the work of Kenneth White, ed. Gavin Bowd, Charles Forsdick & Norman Bissell, Alba Editions, Glasgow, 2005, pp. 96-108.
12 Pers. com. 12 Sept. 2017. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary, it can also mean a destitute person, which can be fitting to the artistic predicament. I should love to see some suitably qualified student make a study of Gaelic spiritual terms, and in particular, to gather what might still be out there in the old religious folks, before it disappears into the sphinx of “Gaelic with business studies”.
13 “Intellectual Nomad,” Cairns Craig, Scottish Review of Books, 28 June 2013, https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2013/06/intellectual-nomad/.
14 Kenneth White, On Scottish Ground: Selected Essays, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1998. The essays I refer to here are “A Shaman Dancing on the Glacier”, pp. 35-48, originally published in Artwork, June-July 1991; “The Archaic Context”, pp. 15-34, originally written in 1967 and first published in La Figure du dehors, Editions Grasset, Paris, 1982; “Into the White World”, pp. 58-67, originally written 1966, first published in Raster VI/I, Amsterdam, 1972; and “The High Field”, pp. 165-180, originally written in 1975, first published as “Taking off from Hugh MacDiarmid” in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol 17:1, May 1990.
15 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Arkana, London, 1989, pp. 508-511.
16 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fontana, London, 1993, p. 40.
17 Jamet, ibid.. In the traditions of the Highland church, according to John MacInnes, the role of precentors developed in part out of bardic tradition (pers com, c. 1996).
18 Miller, Phil, “Eigg’s historic community buyout to be celebrated in Celtic Connections 2018 25th anniversary festival”, The Herald, https://goo.gl/wh3P9i, 25 October 2017.
19 Songs of Separation, Proper Music Publishing, Navigator 094, www.songsofseparation.co.uk, 2016.
Addendum: Kenneth’s email of 27 March 2018 (see note 3) took issue with my metaphor in this section of Moses and the Promised land. It does so in a manner with which I am, to a considerable extent, happy to stand corrected. Specifically so, on the presumption that he means “genius” not in its colloquial sense of celebrity or IQ, but in its etymologically correct sense of a generative, procreative or tutelary guiding “spirit”. He wrote: “End of 2017, after reading your fine essay … I started scribbling a cluster of notes under the title: “A Pointer or Two for Alastair – maybe for future use.” But I got interrupted and pulled away from this embryo of text because of an oncoming avalanche of work from up the mountain. Glancing though those scattered notes, some hardly legible, I see I wanted to take you up especially on a paragraph near the end of your essay where you speak of one generation glimpsing the Promised Land and the task of another to “take the final step”. Here’s the note: ‘It’s never a question of generation, but of genius. Native genius and nomadic genius. And of the work of large minds, scattered across time and space, often done in margins that can include exile. Apprehension of such work can be partial, minimal, even non-existent. But if there’s going to be any real moving ahead, sight should never be lost of the original field, with all its energy, co-ordinates and precision.’ You make of that what you want.” What I make of it, is that to move in the deep “carrying stream” of a culture entails looking not just to where the river is flowing, but raising one’s eyes to the mountains from whence it rose. “Genius” is cognate with Genesis, with beginnings. We must not forget our roots, our lineage, the ancestors, in our concern for nurturing the children’s future. Like when pulling at the oars, we row forwards while looking backwards.
20 Eigg Trust Launch Address, The Edinburgh Review, Edinburgh University Press, No. 88, 1992, pp. 158-162.
21 See https://goo.gl/KEBTxR.