Art, culture, and radical hope

Frost 1

In The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming asks:

"What is civilization? Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

Frost 2

At this point in modernity, Deming writes,

"one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

Frost 3

"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

Frost 4

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Frost 5

Frost 6

Seven decades later, Terry Tempest Williams reflected on those words:

"I think about Rilke, who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Frost 7

Frost 8

Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The path to the village Commons on a recent frosty morning.


Nature and beauty

In the tangled heart of a wet winter wood,

in the rustle of leaves,

Today, one last passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, accompanied by some photographic time-traveling: a journey through the woods behind my studio from winter to spring and back.

McCarthy writes:

"It is a peculiar property of the earth that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive, but it is also a wondrous property, and it greatly moved us -- as behaviourally modern humans, anyway. Hence over about forty thousand years we have steadily formalised our appreciation and our celebration of it, in what we have come to call art, from Lascaux to Leonardo. Until, that is, the last century. In the last hundred years or so, with the advent of modernism, a new artistic philosophy for an industrial age (and also for a world whose optimism had been irreparably fractured by the First World War), many of our society's high cultural elites have consciously rejected the primacy of beauty, seeing its veneration as outmoded and complascent, and holding that the true purpose of art should be to challenge preconceptions; and they have largely forgotten all about, or simply ignored, where beauty comes from in the first place, which is the natural world. 

"In more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect.

in the silence of moss,

in the damp and the dark

"[...] There is no denying that the veneration of the beauty of nature, which Wordsworth made the fount of his philosophy, has largely ceased to figure in high culture since modernism contemptuously swept it aside; and modernism's triumph was of course comprehensive, in painting and sculpture, in music and in poetry. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was a substantial group of English poets collectively known as the Georgians who wrote extensively about nature and were read by large audiences; some were quite good, some were not, but all except one were consigned to lasting oblivion by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922 and the modernist revolution which followed (the exception, of course, being the wonderful Edward Thomas, who was anyway very much more than a 'Georgian nature poet'). We retain the legacy of those attitudes. So beauty in general and the natural beauty of the earth in particular have gone largely unsanctioned as objects of relevance by the cultural elites of the 20th and now of the 21st century, and we hear little of them from those quarters; and yet, of course, many ordinary people who do not feel they must be aligned with prevailing cultural modes of thought have been drawn to the beauty of nature as much as people ever were, and I am one of them.

in the cold and the clear,

"Let me tell you about a wood. Five times in one week, I went to this wood. Five separate trips, on five successive days. And each time, after the first time, I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready -- the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure -- but it was even more than that, it was the anticipation of a sort of ecstasy, at beholding what the woods contained, hidden in its depths, which was something truly exceptional, as exceptional as a crashed flying saucer, I found myself thinking....Each time I stopped at the gate I said to myself, I know what is in there....

A gate swings open. Enter, my dear.

BluebellsIt was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy. 

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it, which was not solid like a blue door might be but constantly morphing in tone with the light and shade, now lilac, now cobalt, a blue which was gentle but formidably strong, so intense as to be mesmerising: at some moments it was hard to believe it was composed of flowers. But that was the beauty and the joy of the bluebells, their floral richness and their profusion, a dozen blue bell-heads nodding on every stem, a hundred thousand stems pressing together in every glade until it ceased to be plants, it was just an overwhelming incredible blueness at the bottom of a wood....

Cross over the threshold, the bridge, the stile,

slip through that small secret door in the hill,

into the green, and into the blue,

"In that wood, in that spring not long ago, for five days in succession I was struck dumb by the beauty of the earth. For five days I went back purposely to look at that colour, that living colour, because when I accidentally came across it, it was at its peak, and I knew that soon it would fade. Day after day after day after day after day. And I told no one. I think I was...what? Ashamed? No, not at all; but I am influenced by prevailing cultural norms as much as the next person, and I suppose I felt that declaiming about five successive days of bluebell-peeping would be regarded as eccentric? Or something? Yet I was drawn back there ineluctably, to glut my senses on colour. Without telling a soul. It felt almost like being a part of the underground....

into Faerieland, clever child, foolish child.

Where magic lives,

and where you shall live too,

forgetting your world for a year and a day,

"For if the beauty of nature is not high in official cultural favour, as we set out into the 21st century, it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds, with a force that strongly suggests it is rooted in our underlying bond with the natural world, and that culture is being trumped by instinct. That is certainly the case with me.

and only then will you find your way home,

"I do not care a fig that modernism may have cast beauty aside, and that the legacy of that rejection may be with us today; to me, the beauty of the natural world retains its joy-giving power and its importance undiminished by artistic, cultural or philosophical fashion -- indeed, its importance is increased immeasurably by the fact that now it is mortally threatened."

pockets full of faery gold that has turned into leaves. And sorrow. And poems.

Pictures: Winter, spring, and winter again on our Devon hillside. Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. The little poem/tale in the picture captions today is mine. 


Nature and joy

Migrant Megamoths (convolvulas hawkmoths in the Apuan Alps) by Lorenzo Shoubridge

The Moth Snowstorm

Here's another absolutely beautiful passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy:

"The way we might love the natural world, as opposed to being wary of it, or instinctively conscious of its utility, may be thought of as commonplace; but over the years it has increasingly seemed to me a remarkable phenomenon. For after all, it is only our background, our context, the milieu from which, like all other creatures, we have emerged. Why should it evoke in us any emotion beyond those, such as fear and hunger, that are needed for survival? Can an otter love its river? And yet it is the case that the natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

"Although I feel strongly that this is one of the greatest things in our lives -- never more important than now -- it seems quite mysterious in its origins, and certainly in the force it can exercise. To be able to be swept up, to be swept away by an aspect of nature such as butterflies; tell me, is that something in nature itself, or is it something in us? Once, Christianity offered a ready explanation: our joy in the beauty and life of the earth was our joy in the divine work of its creator. But as Christianity fades, the undeniable fact that the natural world can spark love in us becomes more of an enigma.

Portrait of a Mother (wild pumas) by Ingo Arndt

Frozen Moment (two male Dall sheep in the Yukon, Canada) by Jérémie Villet

"You can see far more easily why it engenders some other powerful emotions, with, for example, the big beasts. The first big beast I ever saw in the wild was a black rhino, in Nambia. It was about a hundred yards away, a ton of double-horned power glaring straight at me with nothing but low scrub between us; and although I knew it had poor eyesight, it was twitching its ultra-sensitive ears like revolving radar antennae, trying to pick me up and draw a bead on me, and I was transfixed: my heart pounded, my mouth dried, I looked around for shelter. But if I was afraid, there was a stronger and stranger feeling coursing through me. I felt in every way more alive. I felt as alive as I had ever been.

"The next day I saw an African buffalo for the first time, a great black mass of menace which made me even more nervous than the rhino had, yet I experienced precisely the same sensation: mixed in with the anxiety, with the fear of being killed, and buffalos will kill you, was the feeling in the animal's proximity of living more intensely, of somehow living almost at another level. And when later that day in a dry riverbed I saw, close to, my first wild elephant, the most dangerous of them all, I felt again, intermingled with the wariness, something akin to passion.

A Taste of Peace (elephant in Mozambique) by Charlie Hamilton James

Canopy Hang-out (brown-throated three-toed sloth) by Carlos Pérez Naval

"They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Aquabatic Antelope (red lechwe, south central Africa) by Branson Meaker

"It is to those fifty thousand generations that our fascination with the big beasts harks back; their magnificence triggers an awe in us, the still surviving awe of our ancestors who pursued them, full of fear and hope, piously painting their images on the walls of caves. On the rock faces of Lascaux and Chauvet, where the fear and hope coalesce into worship, we have astonishing insights into a world of long-gone people whose lives revolved around dangerous animals and their slaughter, and who must therefore have lived, with mortality ever present, at that elevated and passionate level we still sense when we come up against the great beasts ourselves, in their natural surroundings.

"Yet a stray thought plays about my mind, haunts its corners, refuses to leave: it must also be the case that the hunter-gatherers saw butterflies. Were they indifferent? All of them? Even to swallowtails? Somehow I doubt it. I think the point must have arrived where such unlikely, brilliant beings could not but register with observers, even those obsessed with survival and violence and death -- for a moment must have come in prehistory when someone, for the first time, waited for a swallowtail to settle, to better look on it, and marvelled at what was there in front of them."

Meadow Beauty (pearl-bordered fritillary, Sweden) by Alfons Lilja

War Dance (desert toad-headed agamas) by Victor Tyakh

McCarthy argues that the joy and wonder that the natural world evokes in us should take a role in our defence of it, especially for those of us working in the arts in various forms:

"In a famous preface to one of his short novels, Joseph Conrad pointed out that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have a more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does. I believe that in defending the natural world, the time has come to offer up the images.

"What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Dinner Duty (great grey owls, Sweden) by Tommy Pedersen

"This has been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalised defence of the natural world, for two reasons. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy that nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalised way. We can generalise, or, indeed, monetise the value of nature's services in satisfying our corporal needs, since we have all broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say -- alas that we cannot -- that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me.

"Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to to it ourselves -- proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down. 

"It is only through specific personal experience that the case can be made, which is why I will offer mine...and I will do so not just as a celebration of [nature], but as a conscious, engaged act of defence. Defence through joy, if you like. For nature, as human society takes a wrecking ball to the planet, has never needed more defending."

I couldn't agree more.

The Albatross Cave (Te Tara Koi Koia, New Zealand) by Thomas P Peschak

I urge you to read McCarthy's passionate, poignant, and beautifully written book. It is heart-rending, but also heart-mending, and as deeply moving as a book can be.

The Plumage Parade (penguins on Marion Island) by Thomas P Peschak

The gorgeous imagery today is from 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which runs until May 2020. The titles and photographer credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Early Riser (female gelada, Ethiopian highlands) by Riccardo Marchegiani

The Charm of Ruthy (female striped hyena) by Ariel Fields

The passages quoted above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015); all rights reserved by the author. Right to the photographs above are reserved by the photographers, and The Natural History Museum.

Two related posts: The Blessings of Otters and The Dance of Joy and Grief. I also recommend the recent interview with folk singer Sam Lee published in The Evening Standard (8 January, 2020).


Nature, gnomes, and the power of story

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."

Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:

"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.

"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."

Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively  preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book. 

"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.

The Little Grey Men"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.

"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.

Two illustrations for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows,  and its kestrels hovering above,  a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.

"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna, the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.

What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.