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 THIS IS WORK IN PROGRESS, PLEASE DO NOT CITE WITHOUT FIRST CONSULTING THE AUTHOR.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. 

23. November 2017 · Comments Off on The Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture: Nan Shepherd: An Early Geopoet by James McCarthy, Heriot Watt University 18 November 2017 · Categories: geopoetics · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

James McCarthy at Heriot Watt University

I’m honoured to be asked to give this inaugural lecture in memory of Tony McManus, who was crucial in the establishment of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.

Although I never knew Nan Shepherd personally, I feel a strong association with her not only through her own writings, but also because of my own connections to the area she wrote about, and I hope you will indulge me in my use of her forename throughout what follows in this talk.

Nan is the first woman writer to grace a Scottish banknote. On this Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note she is looking like a Greek heroine, with a very distinctive band round her forehead. A lifelong friend tells the true story of how Nan, (the least vain of women who never went to a hairdresser in her life) decided as a young woman to have her portrait taken at a local photography studio for some unknown reason. She spotted a length of photographer’s film lying on a table, picked it up, wrapped it round her head, and stuck a brooch on it, to create unwittingly a Wagnerian princess look. As her friend said, ‘The one vanity project of her entire life is now her public image.’ That quite forceful image however belies her natural reticence and modesty. The banknote quotes Nan’s insightful words:

‘But the struggle between frost and running water
Is not quickly over
The battle fluctuates and at the point of fluctuation
Between the motion of water and the immobility of frost                                                
Strange and beautiful forms are evolved.’

RBS £5 banknote: Nan Shepherd

I first encountered Nan Shepherd in the relatively recent writings of the landscape writer and broadcaster Robert Macfarlane – and was quite captivated. It was he who identified two seminal ideas in Nan’s writing on mountains: ‘We don’t walk up a mountain, but into it’, and secondly that ‘we must abandon the summit as the organising principle of mountains.’ She was in good company with that other unrecognised geopoet, (before the term was invented) John Muir, who said that ‘going out is actually going in.’ It was Macfarlane, among others, who also claimed that Nan coveted knowledge and willingly suffered privations (witness her arduous treks into the mountains in all weathers) in the pursuit of learning. But she was also a person of passions and lived life with gusto, represented by the quote outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.’ Macfarlane, author and acclaimed landscape afficianado claimed that her major poetic work In the Cairngorms was one of the most brilliant works of landscape literature … ‘no one has written as well as Shepherd about what it feels like to be in the mountains.’ Almost all her poetry hymns the combination of nature and intellect, while In the Cairngorms is like her novels in the sense of the mind’s own fineness, passionately engaged with the vastness, beauty and ultimate indifference of rock, water, light and air.

Nan lived all her long life between 1893 and 1981 in Peterculter outside Aberdeen and was proud of this association with the north-east of Scotland. After several years as a student in Aberdeen, I have come to terms with an impression of deep parochialism in the culture of this area, now considerably diminished by the advent of the North Sea oil industry – as one wag had it – ‘A day oot o’ Aiberdeen is a day oot o’ life’. She was an Aberdeen University graduate who maintained a close link with her alma mater throughout her life. Born to a middle-class family, she nevertheless developed a remarkable insight into the life and language of the poor farming communities of the rural hinterland, described, often through dialogue in the local vernacular, in her three novels. Published in the short period between 1928 and 1933, they are now recognised as significant contributions to the Scottish literary renaissance of that time, set in the small communities of north-east Scotland – a largely unrecognised precursor of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much lauded Sunset Song.

She was a pioneer in women’s writing in Scotland, focussing especially on their struggle to escape a patriarchal society. Jessie Kesson attributed her own start in a distinguished writing career to Shepherd’s advice and encouragement: Kesson said that Nan possessed ‘a grace of the soul’ expressed in discretion and reticence. But she was also a valued confidante of Hugh McDiarmid, Neil Gunn, and many other literary figures. It was Gunn who thought that her now most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain would not appeal to publishers. Nan herself describes the writing of this work in the last years of World War II as ‘my secret place of ease’. Barely recognised in her own lifetime, she was in fact a major contributor to Scottish Modernist literature.

In that lifetime, she was best known for her novels which, using the local dialect with great facility, told the story of strong, uneducated country women of all ages, attempting to swim against the tide of convention, and using as a backdrop, the life of these women, interwoven with memorable descriptions of the landscape and weather of north-east Scotland. What is particularity interesting is that, drawing on the same environment, she wrote her novels several years before Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair and Sunset Song, referred to previously, which largely eclipsed Shepherd’s earlier work on similar themes. She was also very much ahead of her time in tackling feminist issues and became an inspiring model for her largely female students. She has been favourably compared to Virginia Woolf and, according to a recent winner of the Wainwright prize, Amy Liptrot, her novels were ‘vast modernist works, multi-perspectival and exploratory’ – and yet she was living and working far from the mainly male literary establishment, from which she was largely excluded. It was the same author who said ‘It’s the deep knowledge, attentiveness and space given to things that often might be dismissed…that’s what makes it a beautiful thing to think of Nan out walking by herself or with other scientist and writer friends, getting to know the hills… she is a role model of how I would like my life to be.’

The Grampian Quartet

Nan was a charismatic teacher of English – she has been described by one student as having a spell-binding teaching talent – and took a feminist approach in her lectures years ahead of her time, initially at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (subsequently to become the Aberdeen College of Education) throughout her working life. She encouraged her students to embrace the wider world, but not to despise their often impoverished backgrounds and to constantly seek fresh knowledge – a topic reiterated in her novels around her country heroines. But in keeping with the title of this talk, I want to focus on her non-fiction, even if she regarded poetry, such as that in her work In the Cairngorms, as the purest of all forms of writing.

A dauntless hill walker, she organised trips for her students into the nearby Cairngorms, introducing them to the geology and natural history of the largest area of subarctic environment in Britain, with all its wonders. It was my former colleague, Dr. Grant Roger, who introduced Nan to the botanical riches of the massif. But it was Grant’s sister, Sheila Roger, who came to know Nan most intimately: as the young child of a neighbour, she recalled lying on Nan’s bed, being read to by Nan and encouraged to take an interest in everything around her (Nan remained unmarried throughout her life, although her poetry obliquely suggests a doomed love affair.) Later Grant and Sheila were to make many expeditions into the Cairngorms with Nan and accompanied her on trips to Europe.

Nan was known for her emphasis on getting to know the geology and natural history of particular areas such as the Cairngorms. She had a deep kinship with nature, a spiritual connection which had a Buddhist outlook as a pilgrimage into being. Her influence on her students can be gauged by the number who, often established in one-teacher schools from Galloway to the Northern Isles, invited her to stay with them.

Nan Shepherd: estate of Nan Shepherd

It was in 1934 that she published In the Cairngorms, a paean in poetry to the mountains with which she so closely identified – but also expressing her own personal loves and anguished longings. She worked long and hard on her poetry – a form which she claimed ‘offered glimpses of the burning heart of all life.’
But the style of the later The Living Mountain is at once austerely intellectual and passionately felt – it is knowledge rather than feeling that seems to be Nan Shepherd’s route to the sublime, said Roderick Watson. She comes to the conclusion that the ‘living mountain’ lives because of our conscious engagement with it…. ‘as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate more deeply into my own…I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.’ Only recently, approaching my 82nd year, have I come to appreciate this insight, which converts such writing from a mere literary talent to something of a quite different order of importance in reflecting a deeper level of life experience, especially in relation to the natural world. It is nothing if not about life itself. The mountain landscape apart, she is particularly entranced by water – from the stillness and clarity of Loch Avon to the Highland torrents. In the very first lines of In the Cairngorms, she declaims:

‘Oh, burnie with the glass-like shiver, singing over stone’

– which come very close to the theme of Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts i.e. the flow of a natural stream reflecting, in accordance with the great Chinese philosophers, the spontaneous harmony of an interdependent universe going its own way. Alan Watts said: ‘The water, all moisture, transpires from the earth, streams, rivers, …the moisture is returned, as dew, as rain – a marvellous cycle: ocean to the upper air, a living interaction…’ While Herman Hesse continued this theme, with his deep immersion in Chinese philosophy in crossing the watershed of the Alps: …‘the small pool which touches my shoes runs downwards towards the north, its waters come at last into distant seas. But the small snowdrift close beside it trickles towards the south …but all the waters of the world find another again…’

It was her last work, The Living Mountain, published in 1977, having lain unregarded in a drawer from the 1940s, that establishes her as an original geopoet for its extraordinary deep and personal identification with the natural environment – a meditational work with Zen-like undertones. The title of this work absolutely encapsulates Nan’s approach to the mountain landscape. Abjuring the predominately male preoccupation with conquering summits, she described her stravaiging into her beloved mountain range as a journey into Being. I use the word into very deliberately as it expresses both the outward and the inward journey, while not neglecting the sensual pleasure of the body’s response to activity, especially energetic walking. It has resonances with Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation, in which, in Macfarlane’s words, she refined her philosophy. ‘The mountain does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.’ said Nan. Ali Smith describes The Living Mountain as ‘an enlightened fusion of philosophy and reportage of the form and force of life everywhere in the beloved landscape’. It is now recognised as a masterpiece, amongst the greatest works of nature writing to come out of Britain. Ali Smith together with the poet Kathleen Jamie have both acclaimed Nan’s works. The publisher Canongate has reissued her works and recently sold 45,000 copies of The Living Mountain, while the rights in China have gone for the largest amount ever paid for one of her books.

The Living Mountain

The emphasis which Watson places on Nan’s intimate knowledge of the ecology of the Cairngorm environment, its geology, animals and plants, is exemplified by her comment on, for example, one of my own favourite plants, juniper – she says

‘(it) is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it now and then to renew the spice.’

She lived on her own terms, unafraid to walk the hills without destination, but allowing her senses to respond to every sight or sound which she experienced – what she described as ‘the elementals.’ She made a habit of sleeping out of doors on her own among the high tops.

‘I have slept in the open as early as May…there is an art in waking. I must come fully awake, and open my eyes without having moved. Once, sleeping in the daytime, I jerked awake, to find that a young blackbird …had been walking along my leg and elsewhere ten yards away from me a red deer is feeding in the dawn light. He moves without a sound. The world is entirely still….he looks at me, his nostrils twitch, we look at each other…’

In Macfarlane’s words, she entered a geopoetic quest and philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge. There was no difference between body and mind in the sensing of textures and surfaces of rocks, wind and water and her interactions with wildlife be they plants, animals or birds.

Robert Macfarlane filming ‘The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey’ for BBC Scotland TV

I can recall two comparable personal experiences which approximate to Nan’s own. The first was when, as a young schoolboy, I crossed the River Tay from my home town of Dundee into Fife and simply started walking. A wood on a hill slope looked inviting for my sandwich lunch and I wandered to the skyline on one of those rare days when there was a slight breeze, but the sky was springtime blue. There had been some recent felling of the Scots Pine and a cut stump provided a convenient seat. The only sound was the wind bending the tops of the trees, but the early warmth of the sun brought out the aromatic fragrance of the needles which I had never smelt before. The rough-edged lozenges on the salmon-pink bark formed endless patterns of light and shade. Beyond the crowns of the trees, I could see the patches of sunlit sky. There came a point where I could not distinguish that sky from the scent of the conifers, from the wind on my cheek, or the bark scales in front of me on the felled logs – they were all gloriously one.

I was deliciously intoxicated with this world, transported by a sense of clean beauty which could not be grasped and which could not have come in company. I was aware of myself and of the trees and everything else in my surroundings, but without any space intervening – a feeling of both peace and jubilation, together with a deep sense of belonging to this scene.

More than 20 years ago, I found myself on one of the last undeveloped stretches of the Maine coast in USA, south of Acadia. This was The Country of the Pointed Firs so beautifully delineated by Sarah Orne Jowett in the dying years of the 19th century. Living in a remote lighthouse, I was carrying out a commission from the US National Park Service to investigate a potentially contentious proposal to create a new national park on this coast. After a late night writing up notes, my head still buzzing with all the conflicting issues involved, I rose very early for a run through the nearby coastal woods. There was an old Indian trail that skirted the cliffs. A deep morning mist intermittently shrouded both the cliffs and the forest of spruce, fir, birch and cedar which reached down to the shore around inlets. Elsewhere, the jagged black and grey rocks were barren except for orange lichens which reflected a splash of colour. The woods themselves were carpeted with velvety emerald mosses below an understorey of low woody shrubs. The silence and the damp air were a tonic to the body and the brain. With a path that gently undulated and wound its way round the clifftops, I soon recovered from the first minutes of awkward stumbling over roots and found an easier rhythmic stride. Along the trail, there was evidence of moose and black bear.

The Bay of Fundy

Occasionally the mist rose above the woods to reveal a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy, in the distance, with its spectacular tides. There was an ethereal atmosphere – a combination of windlessness and calm sea, only seen in gaps between the trees, while the suspended cobwebs glistening with morning dew, created their own ghostly miasma. I felt my running was good and almost effortless on the spongy mat of the trail. My own breath, in this morning cold, was creating miniature grey clouds. I could hear my breathing, but I became aware of something that sounded like an echo to my left which I could not identify. I kept going, enjoying the exhilarating rhythm of running, but increasingly aware that my passage through the silent woods was punctuated by a parallel movement to seaward. Just the noise similar to that expellation of the cleansing breath of a Tai Chi exercise, when you are encouraged to make a natural ‘whooshing!’. Unable to see clearly through the undulating coastal mist, the low whistling seemed to keep pace with my own progress, an almost eerie reflection of my momentum, rising and falling. The half-closed mind clicked. Whales!

Through the trees and the mist, nothing could be seen of the creatures. But with my ears now attuned, and my remembrance of reading of the several species of cetaceans which ploughed down this quiet sound, I was in no doubt. I could hear them but, pounding over the moss, could they hear me? Whatever, their need for air and my own seemed to create an umbilical cord across woods and water, both of us floating in our distinct but united worlds, moving down the coast.

In the last chapter of The Living Mountain, appropriately entitled ‘Being’, Nan describes a childhood experience not dissimilar from my own in that Fife pinewood. She says:

‘I set out on my journey in pure love. It began in childhood, when the stormy violet of a gully on the back of Sgoran Dubh, at which I used to gaze from a shoulder of the Monadhliaths, haunted my dreams. That gully, with its floating, its almost tangible ultramarine, thirled me for life to the mountain. Climbing Cairngorms was then for me a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished. Certainly not children. It was still legendary on the October day, blue, cold, and brilliant after heavy snow, when I climbed Creag Dhubh above Loch an Eilean, alone and expectant. I climbed like a child stealing apples, with a fearful look behind. The Cairngorms were forbidden country – this was the nearest I had come to them; I was delectably excited. But how near to them I was coming I could not guess, as I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air – and could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms…’

Some of us have experienced and remembered that early elation.

Sgoran Dubh Mor from Sron na Lairige by Scottish Horizons

In 1940, Nan wrote to Neil Gunn:

‘To apprehend things, walking on a hill, seeing the light change, being aware, using the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit – yes, that is a secret life one has and knows others have. But to be able to share it, and thro’ words…it dissolves one’s being, I am no longer myself, but a part of a life beyond myself.’

Gillian Carter, writing about Nan’s domestic landscape, said ‘The fully embodied engagement with a specific landscape, the dissolving of one’s being, and the transgression of the boundary between the self and other, all operate in The Living Mountain.’ One eminent reviewer stated unequivocally that it was the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain. The closing words of that work epitomise Nan’s insight:

‘The purported objectivity of science is shown to be less than the subjective, embodied involvement – every reality that matters to human beings, is a reality of the mind. Through living in it, the landscape becomes part of us, just as we are part of it.’

Where the landscape in her fiction shows the possibilities of freedom for her characters, both male and female, it does the same in The Living Mountain for the self. In my own work as a professional conservationist within an organisation which prided itself on its scientific objectivity, I could not allow the poetic and the philosophical to intrude into the papers I prepared for sceptical committees. I now realise that this constraint allowed me to see only one part of the picture and perhaps the minor part. Macfarlane, a writer of the greatest sensitivity to the Highland landscape, described The Living Mountain as a sensual exploration of the area and claimed that it had quite altered his vision of this mountain range, which he had previously known intimately. It has quite altered mine.