Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell – Norman Bissell
Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell
So, what is Geopoetics? I suppose the simplest answer is: look around you.
It’s about creative people: writers, musicians, storytellers, visual artists, geologists, ethnologists, botanists, ornithologists, geographers, conservationists, researchers and people who care about the future of the planet, coming together to discuss our common ground and to express the Earth in whatever creative ways we wish.
I’d like to thank you all for taking part and welcome you to Argyll on behalf of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Particularly those of you who’ve come all the way from Brazil, USA, Switzerland and Italy as well as England, Wales and Scotland.
Geopoetics involves expressing the Earth in a variety of ways – for example, through oral expression, writing, painting, photography, film making, music, geology, geography, other sciences, philosophy, combinations of art forms and of the arts, sciences and thinking. By its very nature it is trans-disciplinary in its approach as a synthesis of ideas and practices, and lends itself to collaborations between artists, scientists and thinkers of many different kinds. That is why our conference programme emphasises our creative responses, and provides space and time for everyone to create new work of all kinds, some of which we hope will subsequently be published in our online journal Stravaig which features essays, poems and artwork on our website www.geopoetics.org.uk and will be made available in other ways.
But what is it we have in common that brings us here?
Geopoetics would suggest it is various things. It is not least a shared concern for the planet, which means putting the Earth at the centre of our experience. It can involve developing a heightened awareness of the world of which we are part and using of all of our senses and knowledge in approaching the world, something that my poem ‘When You Go Out’ tries to express.
When You Go Out
When you go out into the world
try to use all your senses
touch and taste wild thyme
smell hawthorn and kelp
watch herring gulls soar
listen to the sound of the sea
above all open your mind
and who knows what you will find.
So, geopoetics is an approach to the world, a way of being in the world, as well as a world outlook. It seeks to overcome the separation of mind and body and of human beings from the more than human world. It involves learning from others who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’, as Kenneth White calls it, to find a new approach to thinking and living, for example, ‘outgoers’ or ‘intellectual nomads’ like Henry Thoreau, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Geddes, Joan Eardley, Alexander von Humboldt, Kenneth White, and many others.
It has led to a network of Geopoetics Centres with a shared project to develop our understanding of geopoetics and apply it in different fields of research and creative work. There are such Centres in Quebec in Canada, different parts of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Chile and New Caledonia. The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, which was founded on Burns Night in Edinburgh in 1995, has attracted members from England, USA, Morocco, Germany, Poland and Sweden as well as different parts of Scotland. Geopoetics is truly a trans-national movement.
Geopoetics seeks to open up the possibility of radical cultural renewal for us as individuals and for society as a whole. It could be considered a wave-and-wind philosophy and this part of the world is a fruitful and wonderful place to develop it.
On the face of it, George Orwell and geopoetics are strange bedfellows. Orwell was one of the finest political writers of the twentieth century, he attempted to turn political writing into an art, and he well-nigh killed himself writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Isle of Jura, which you can see from outside here in Ellenabeich, to warn the world about the dangers of totalitarian dictatorships. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have sold over 40 million copies between them and, as you will know, Nineteen Eighty-Four became a best seller again this year with the election of Donald Trump as America’s President.
Orwell was a fascinating, complex, contradictory character who as well as being a politically-driven author, was also a naturalist who yearned for the ‘Golden Country’ of his childhood and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible when living on Jura and before that in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire.
He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, but was brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. He loved playing outdoors where he exercised the most important attribute any child can have – he was inquisitive about everything he came across.
In the summer of 1930 he tutored some boys in Southwold and took them on long walks in the country. One of them, Richard Peters, says in the book Orwell Remembered, published in 1984:
He was a mine of information on birds, animals, and the heroes of boys’ magazines. Yet he never made us feel that he knew our world better than we knew it ourselves. …
His attitude to animals and birds was rather like his attitude to children. He was at home with them. He seemed to know everything about them and found them amusing and interesting. … He infused interest and adventure into everything we did with him just because of his own interest in it. Walking can be just a means of getting from A to B, but with him it was like a voyage with Jules Verne beneath the ocean. … A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure and matter of fact. The world we felt was just like this. And it would have been absurd not to notice all there was to see. …
‘Noticing all there is to see’ is an important element of geopoetics.
From 1936 onwards Orwell and his wife Eileen rented a small cottage known as The Stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire where he kept goats, geese and chickens round the back. Their first goat was called Muriel and they named their rooster Henry Ford. Their black poodle was called Marx, and Orwell used its name as a kind of political test of visitors to see whether they thought it was named after Marks & Spencer, Karl Marx or Groucho Marx. He also grew vegetables and planted roses and many other cottage garden flowers there.
In an extract from one of his best essays, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ published in Tribune in April 1946, Orwell writes,
The pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.
As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters.
Orwell went to Jura in May 1946 to get away from London and the treadmill of journalism which made him feel “like a sucked orange”, to bring up his adopted baby son Richard after Eileen died, and to write what became Nineteen Eighty-Four. That first summer he took a break from writing and threw himself into gardening, fishing, digging peat, shooting rabbits (who kept eating his vegetables), and keeping hens, geese and later pigs.
Here are a couple of extracts from my novel Barnhill just after he arrived at Barnhill on Jura:
Next morning George walked down to the rocks and gazed contentedly at the gently lapping water of the Sound of Jura. The sun was up and the grey-blue sea shimmered in the early morning light. To the east lay the low hills of the mainland and not another house in sight. It was even more beautiful than he had imagined during that last cold winter in the city. Where better to be than on a Hebridean island on a day such as this? This is what he had come for; to be part of all of this, to give himself space in which to think and to write, to make a new life for himself and his son here. It certainly beat the frantic grime of London. Maybe he could borrow or buy a boat from the Fletchers and do some fishing? He went back up to the garden and stripped to the waist revealing his white, scraggy body. In a shed he found a garden fork, a spade and a sieve. Someone must have done some gardening here before. He used the fork to break up the dry, stony soil and started to clear it of weeds. Soon he was sweating and panting for breath. It was back-breaking work and he hadn’t done any real manual labour since Wallington years before. He went into the kitchen to find an old towel to wipe off his sweat. At this rate it would take him most of the week to prepare the ground for sowing. Perhaps by that time the veg. seeds he’d ordered would have arrived.
Later that first week, spade in hand, George slowly dragged his sledge up a hill. Up on top he dug up peat, breathing heavily and sweating in the hot sun. He took off his shirt, his thin body looking slightly browner than before. He piled the peat up in blocks to dry and was surprised how quickly he could cut it. In not much more than an hour he’d piled up about a hundred blocks. A raven flew overhead. He felt content. He’d come to lose himself in this remote place that he’d fallen in love with. To do the kinds of things that he fondly remembered doing as a boy in Henley-on-Thames, exploring and getting to know the territory, and going fishing. But now he also wanted to see if he could live off the land and become as self-sufficient as possible, taking it all much further than he had at Wallington. Here he had peat for the fire and all the fruits of the sea at his disposal, and even the occasional gift of a deer to top up the meagre rations he was allowed by law. It was a dream he’d had for a long time and his knowledge of nature’s ways should help him to realise it. But he also needed a complete break from any serious writing. He knew what his next book would be, and had written a little of it; he’d drafted its structure years back and here he could make a proper go of it at last. But first he needed to clear his head, to rid himself of all the things that had held him back. Right now he was feeling tired, perhaps he’d overdone it. He headed back and went up to his bedroom and slept for several hours.
Orwell’s Jura diaries faithfully record all of these activities: the Argyll weather, how far on the plants and trees were, the gardening and other practical work he did, the wildlife he came across, and how many fish he and his sister Avril caught.
Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that most dystopian of novels with its oppressive atmosphere of a city falling apart and on which flying bombs might drop at any time, there are some fine lyrical passages which vividly depict the English countryside. For example, this passage descripes in Winston Smith’s dream of his mother and baby sister who disappeared when he was young:
Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.
Many of us have lost the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of our childhood and we desperately want to find them again. The ‘Golden Country’ is the dream of Winston Smith, but it’s also the dream of George Orwell who longed for the lost rural childhood he’d experienced in Edwardian England as Eric Blair. It is also the dream of our earliest experiences of the natural world that we all long for. Winston’s yearning for his lost childhood is referenced later in the book when he and Julia escape the eyes of Big Brother by going into the countryside to make love, away from spying telescreens.
As his health deteriorated from tuberculosis, Orwell thought more and more about his childhood, the repressive prep school he went to, and his love of the countryside. The ‘Golden Country’ represented his dream of what life could be like for everyone. Even when he was dying in a London hospital he sent for his fishing rods from Barnhill since he hoped to fish in Switzerland where he was to recuperate in a sanatorium
When you boil it down, geopoetics is a way of approaching the world with heightened awareness, it’s about being open to what’s around you, using all your senses and knowledge to take it all in, and expressing it creatively. A keen interest in all things and the ability to observe them closely and express them creatively is just as applicable to politics as it is to the bird life, the Atlantic weather systems or the rugged terrain of Jura. Orwell demonstrated that truth in his life and work.
In his essay Why I Write he wrote:
So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
There are strong elements of geopoetics in some of Orwell’s work and in his fascination with nature. This final quotation from ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ provides another splendid example of how insight into natural phenomena and heightened political awareness can illuminate each other.
At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
It doesn’t matter where you live, this openness and alertness to nature can enable us us to be more creative and be healthier people. In places like this, the energy that comes from the Atlantic waves and winds can re-ground and re-invigorate the potentially vibrant cultures of the islands and of Scotland as a whole. By attuning our minds to the elements in such places we can renew our lives and our creative work. Over the next 3 days I hope we will all experience this and do just that.