This short essay on the image-word poetic collaborations between Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin is based on a talk I gave at the 2017 Art.Earth creative summit in Dartington, In Other Tongues, subsequently published by Dark Mountain as part of a six-instalment Blog series I edited for them. All six of these posts, which you can get to by scrolling in either direction from this one, flowed out of talks and performances given at In Other Tongues. I'm especially pleased to have this published as an online essay because this format's enabled me embed an 11m clip from Noel Channan's unforgettable recording and photo essay of Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin in conversation about their work together on Crow and Cave Birds.
An essay on the American painter, writer and sometime Benedictine nun Meinrad Craighead, recently published online by Climate Cultures. This is based on a paper that I gave at the 2016 Art.Earth creative summit in Dartington, Landscape, Language and the Sublime. I'm currently working on a series of poems around Craighead's life and work, that runs as a parallel thread to this ongoing rumination.
‘I have often wondered if a conference based upon grief might be instrumental in motivating people to care abut the Earth. If we were to grieve for what is being lost, then we might come to value what we have.’
Alyson Hallet, Geographical Intimacy, Amazon 2016
In June 2016 I attended an all-night gathering called We Weave and Heft by the River. It took place in a small woodland on the Sharpham estate in South Devon, and was led by the three members of the Coastal Reading Group: Bibi Calderaro, Margeretha Haughwout and Christos Galanis. I joined them for the first leg of their session, from 10pm to 1pm.
The gathering was billed as an ‘all-night grief workshop’, one that would invite a turn towards the growing sense of loss that gathers around our culture’s impact on non-human life. The idea both appealed me, and provoked a vague sense of alarm. What exactly would it entail, to enter that territory with a group of strangers? And ecocide was not, in fact, the theme that had brought us together. The Coastal Reading Group’s workshop was embedded within the Schumacher College’s two-day forum on the theme of Landscape, Language and the Sublime. But if it wasn’t centre stage, ecocide was most definitely present, nonetheless. It’s looming, background presence shadowed, explicitly or implicitly, all of the conversations that I encountered during those two days. Like a distant noise-off that lent a familiar sense of dislocation, surreality even, to the diverse and vibrant exchanges taking place. Pretty much all of the talks and events at this forum fell under the broad umbrella of ‘eco-criticism’, an idea that - at times, anyway - seems to bring with it the strange proposition that the accelerating collapse of the biosphere provides, first and foremost, a useful occasion for some serious and innovative thinking.
During the three hours I spent under a rain-pattered awning in the dark of the Sharpham woods, the discussion took an altogether less heady turn. It was, in the main, about sharing memories, and telling stories. More than that, the manner of the sharing was, in itself, about the power of ritual, about the weight of physical gestures, and of tactile, living materials, to ground and embody grief. The power of ritual, to allow us to set down the specific griefs, spoken or unspoken, that we carry around with us. To hand them over.
As each new story emerged into the unhurried space of that ritual, an elected witness was asked to take a length of twine, to thread it through a clay seed-ball that the organisers had prepared, and then to bind the teller’s story round and around that ball of packed earth, as they listened. At the end of the night, these wool-wrapped seed-balls were to be buried, with all of the night’s memories bound into them, and left to seed cornflowers, poppies and other flowers in the Sharpham soil.
The memories that surfaced one by one during that first phase of the night included personal bereavement. The recent loss of fathers was a common theme. They included the lasting shock of both witnessing, and being an inadvertent party to, a wild animal’s suffering and death. They included seemingly incidental memories, from childhood or from the margins of busy lives, that stood out as intimations of those greater currents of loss that our individual lives are caught up in, but which remain somehow too big to see.
As I listened to others tell their stories, I was struck by an image from my own childhood, returning across more than 40 years. How each summer in Oxfordshire, the car windscreen would have fly splats covering it after every journey. How, the morning after a night drive, the grille between the headlights would be plastered with the bodies of moths drawn to the headlamps. And with that last, another image: the thick swirl of whitened moths in the glare of car’s lights, seen from the back seat. And these images arrived with a quiet, but palpable sense of shock, as I realised how long it’s been since I’ve anything like that here in England. Changes too big, too continuous, to be easily noticed.
One of the participants, an artist and botanist, offered a good word for making a space for grief, that’s stayed with me. Welling: a word to welcome, and to un-fuss, the arrival of tears. She spoke, through tears, of a surprise encounter with a specimen of a thought-to-be-extinct flower: the welling that came at the realisation that this small flower was among the very last of its kind. And from Margeretha, we learnt another word for what grief asks of us, one that spoke more directly to my experience than anything else said that night: reckoning.
We’d spoken of Steven Jenkinson, Griefwalker, who teaches his students to honour grief as the form of praise that it is. The depth of any sadness, a measure of value for the mourned-over. I immediately liked this idea of sorrow-as-praise, just as I appreciate welling as a good word to affirm levels of experience that all our ‘eco-critical discourse’, however subtle, is surely helpless if it excludes. But this reckoning struck a more personal chord for me. Truth be told, around what’s alluded to by these bleak, proliferating phrases – declining baselines, 6th mass extinction, the great narrowing, abrupt global warming – welling is not a thing that easily visits me. Perhaps my emotional literacy does not reach that far, or that deep. Grief is out there, for sure, but for me anyway, it lives somewhere more obscure, more remote than tears. Even on the occasions of personal grieving that I’ve encountered, its as if tears have had to cross some great distance to reach me, arriving from a far remove to which they have then promptly withdrawn. A welling, yes, but one with a long tidal reach. And around these greater currents of loss, grief is more often known, I think, as a thing inferred by its absence. A numbness, or perhaps a muteness. One that carries with it an obscure sense of pressure - of being somehow unable to voice, or even to speak of, what’s there.
Reckoning: a word that takes me straight to this familiar territory. To a numbness that exists more in the body than the head, and is felt as a kind of drawing-down, drawing-in. And I see that for me, this place of reckoning has everything to do with art, with what I come to both art and poetry looking for. It’s a word, too, with which to weigh the difference between thinking a thing, even a thing known only by its absence, and touching that thing, tasting it.
What do we ask of art, before the implacable escalation of anthropogenic mass-extinction? Often, the talk seems to be of inspiring, of motivating, emoting. Of awareness raising: image-making as a constructive contribution to the fight, a subtle and effective tool in the great struggle to turn our culture around, ‘before its too late’. Art deployed as a sophisticated form of message-dissemination, one that just might – who knows – finally stir us from this weird, collective inertia.
I’ve long found myself curiously unable to engage with any such sense of mission. Facetiously, but without irony, I’d say that art has more important work to be doing than saving the planet. First and foremost, I’d say that what I look to art for is soul-retrieval. The recovery of lost soul. And for me, art’s ability embody this process of reckoning is really the heart of the matter, now more than ever, as we stare dumbly at what we’ve become, alternately wringing our hands, blanking out, caught up in eco-busyness’ fidgety displacement activity before the mind-numbing scale of what our own collective existence presents us with.
If I look to my own work to make a contribution to our understanding of ecological recovery, to map a process of cultural recuperation, to articulate a working model of spiritual ecology, I notice something both curious, and unmistakable. Without fail, the work cringes in embarrassment, and rapidly peters out. As if all such rhetoric took hold the stick by the wrong end, and in doing so, placed an impossible weight of expectation on these uncertain, meandering threads of thought. But if, instead, I turn to drawing and to writing for this more immediately personal reckoning, I find a process unfurling of itself - already underway, with or without my conscious involvement, or intent. There’s a kind of welling present within that unfurling, yes, but one that moves independently, within the body of the work, and has strangely little to do with any cathartic outpouring of emotion.
I’m grateful to have taken away a word for this process from the Coastal Reading Group’s ceremony. And grateful, too, for those three good hours of unhurried conversation under the patter of summer rain on canvas, during which we bound our grief into the earth, wove its stories into wool and clay, held their weight in our hands, then set them down.
Two poems published in Dark Mountain Journal 9.
Song well known for its melodic, mellow tone,
a clear and loud fluting (almost in the major key)
Collins Bird Guide
Night slides in
behind the wet glass door
when its song begins pouring
through our thin routine
And yes we were just asking
the warmth in the rock
first bright day
air like silk in our mouths
Now the answer rings
with the sudden flare
of an unseen yellow eye
it’s coming it’s coming it’s coming
Glass blacks back
our running faces
gathering in the day
a mile from the house
we stopped walking
lay down in the damp evening grass
we’d thought the open field
would let us breathe
we were wrong about that
even out here
over the mud-flat sweep
and curlewed folds of the creek
all we could taste was iron
the smell still clinging
to the back of our mouths
since it drew us out
from separate rooms
down to a closed front door
to what waited there
leaking on the horsehair mat
in the stale air
then all at once
climbed heavily to our feet
until the house
its quiet rooms
fell far behind
and we reached this sloping field
to drop into the grass
opening our mouths
A reflection on Spirituality Ecology, a one-day forum hosted by St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, April 2016
St Ethelburga’s is a small 12th Century church, nestled among the glass towers in what’s now London’s teeming financial centre. The original church was partly destroyed by the IRA’s Bishopsgate bombing in 1993. Afterwards, out of an urge to respond both to the violence of that event, and to what it witnessed to, the surviving fabric of the building was repurposed as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.
Last April I attended a one-day forum at St Ethelburga’s, on the theme of Spirituality Ecology. The day related to a new programme of youth mentoring for under 25’s that they’re initiating there, around the same theme. On this occasion most of us were a good deal older than that. For those already familiar with this conversation, the forum was introducing the work of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Joanna Macey, and Macey’s associated the idea of ‘the great turning’: a root and branch transformation of life values, in the face of ecological crisis. I was very pleased to be there, and am inspired by what they’re doing. Parts of the day also left me aware that I’m still uncertain as to the meaning and usefulness of the term ‘spiritual ecology’. So writing this is both about saying thankyou, and about beginning to name the questions that arise for me around this idea, towards a further involvement in it.
The day introduced Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s pragmatic understanding of spiritual ecology in terms of its four framing principles: interconnectedness, reverence for Life, service, and stewardship. It also presented Vaughan-Lee’s four-fold approach to working out a personal embodiment of these principles in our day-to-day lives: witnessing, grief, prayer, action. Beyond those two easy to grasp frameworks, it wasn’t an information-heavy day. Less about studious note-taking than about communication, and encounter. And it was the latter, for me, that turned out to be its most valuable aspect. To invite a conversation about ‘what we are doing to the planet’ seems to trigger a fairly predictable set of reactions in many of us. Grief, yes. Fear, yes. Messianic zeal, possibly. But also irritation, impatience, and an aversion to earnest hand-wringing. Even with one’s own hands silently wringing, under the table.
All of which was skilfully grounded by a series of instructions which invited those present to become more fully embodied, and from there, to meet the others in the room, one at a time, and at close quarters. Through cycles of silent face-to-face meeting, followed by a rotation of speaking and listening, those irritable, worried reactions were pulled down from the space of airy argumentation, into an encounter with what’s written on the face of this one unique human being – the one looking back at you now, and now. I was taken aback, stunned even, by how effectively this cut through any drift towards opinionated position-taking. This was followed by a simple improvised ritual, in which each person present was invited to step out into the circle of others, and to address them by continuing this sentence: ‘Being in service to something greater means…’. Again, what this drew into the room was less a stock set of more-or-less pessimistic, ardent or muscular ‘positions’ on ecological crisis, than the far more unpredictable and fascinating presence of a series of individual human beings.
So I was grateful to be part of all of this, and it’s left an impression on me that I’m still making sense of. One part of that impression was the realisation that the most viscerally present fear around ecological crisis, for me, concerns our mysterious ability to remain in a state of distracted preoccupation, even in the face of an overwhelming need for change. I don’t mean that in sweeping ‘big picture’ terms - the curious momentum that keeps the over-developed world entranced as it sails over the edge of a cliff - although there is that. I mean it first and foremost about myself. I mean, perhaps most of all, the curiously tenacious grip of performance anxiety, the endlessly busying struggle to be good enough, within contexts that you know in your bones to be distractions from what actually matters. I also noticed that being around people, as I found myself to be at St Ethelburga’s, who speak of these things using old-fashioned words like faith, prayer, or ‘service to something greater’, feels like a dangerous place to be, for me. Because, I suppose, that’s how I think of it myself, even if never quite following through on where that line of thought might lead.
This more encounter-based part of the day was followed by the presentation of a number of localized initiatives, as well as an invitation to share our own related projects. The projects presented were inspiring, valuable, urgent. But at this point I also noticed a growing sense of misgiving - in both myself, and one or two others next to me - around the proposition that what all of this comes down to, then, is the need to initiate new eco-spiritual ‘projects’. I find it difficult to discuss this without immediately contradicting myself. Case by case, each of the projects discussed presented meaningful, helpful, grounded work. And yes, we badly need many more such. But I’ve heard this mode of response described by another name, too: eco-busyness. Yes\We\Can: our addiction to restless displacement activity, to an acting-out whose unspoken functions include warding off the unspeakable, and restoring – trying to restore – our sense of human agency, faced with an irrevocable process of change which our culture’s relentless escalation has set in motion. Yes\We\Can.
Certainly, framing any of this in terms of ‘what can we do to convince others’ is where I find myself switching off. The mystery of our culture’s collective momentum, after all, is that we already know where this road goes. The information is there, has been there for years now. And what I’ve come looking for here, I see, may be less about finding a way for us to change the world, or even a way for us to change the culture, than just - or rather, most fundamentally - a way for us to change. Again, I think there’s a good, old-fashioned word for that: metanoia. A turning around in the heart. Conversion - not as a hardening position, or the uncritical adoption of a set of received answers, but as the ongoing eruption of the question presented by ecological crisis itself within one’s life. ‘Continuous conversion’, as its sometimes called. What does life want of me? That seems a good way of putting it. When you stop to consider the full implications of ecological crisis, what does life want of you?
In the round-up to the day, one man, an Anglican priest, spoke of his sense that although we’d made a good start, ‘We need to be much braver’. ‘What might the world look like’, he asked, ‘if we were?’ He threw it out to the room that in our niceness, in our eagerness to put each other at ease, we were all still ‘dancing around the elephant in the room’. His provocation was picked up by a woman participant, who responded to it with the suggestion that ‘dancing round the elephant’ was a useful image to express the value of what we were already doing here, rather than lamenting the inevitably limited nature of our responses. Faced with an elephant of such unimaginable size, what we’re left with, she suggested, is just that - the ongoing dance of all that its looming, immoveable presence provokes in our lives. I like that image, and will keep it.
For myself, what I valued most from this day brings me back to where I began. Provocative questions or challenges like that last, are best put, perhaps, whilst looking into the face of one particular person - one fallible, resourceful human being. I’m still intrigued by how doing that shifted the conversation away from the guilt, from the morose prognoses, and most of all from the too-easy judgements passed on our peers, that such conversations so easily default to. My thanks to the people who set this up, and who hosted it. I look forward to coming back.
A short talk given at Falmouth School of Art's forum on Drawing, March 2015
One idea about drawing and language that means a lot to me comes from a writer, Ursula Le Guin. LeGuin calls it the handmind – a thought voiced by a potter in her utopian novel Always Coming Home: ‘Nothing we do is better than the work of the handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.’
We often hear art and poetry spoken of as forms of thinking. That’s a simple enough proposition, but it begs the question ‘What do we mean by thinking?’ And what’s the difference, if there is one, between thinking something, and seeing it? The cartoonist Lynda Barry uses an expression I find helpful, here: ‘the unthinkable mind’. When we draw or write stories, Barry suggests, images behave ‘more like ghosts than ideas’, moving as if with a mind and a will of their own. And releasing that movement of images (which, for Barry, is synonymous with imagination) involves a mode of seeing that’s enacted by making, and is a quite different species of thought to discursive, analytical reason. A curious thing: the apparent inability of critical thinking to access this direct, responsive seeing. And something that Mervyn Peake once observed, that I often drift back to, is that learning to follow the thread of what you like is the discipline that best facilitates such seeing-by-making, whatever we choose to call it.
To illustrate why Le Guin’s handmind appeals to me, and what I mean by seeing and liking in this context, I’ve brought a drawing project that was interrupted by another idea, one which grew up around it, like ivy taking over a tree. The first project: 1000 flies. To draw a thousand flies. An idea seeded by hearing about the practice, begun in Hiroshima, of folding 1000 paper cranes as a form of peace-prayer, or ritual healing: Senbazuru. But long before I got to 1000, something else overtook this plan, something that eventually unspooled as a story called Fly Sings. Why did this new thread grab my attention? Most simply, perhaps, because drawing for its own sake no longer excites my interest the way it once did. Because drawing comes alive, now, as part of a broader process involving words, and the visual combination of words and pictures, in narrative form. Words, drawings, the behaviour of both on the page, their place within a sequence of pages, all acting upon each other such that none of these factors can be weighed separately. And drawing, as an output in its own right, now breathes most easily as a by-product, a spin-off of this storytelling process.
But what of that vague sense of connection with folding paper cranes, with making images as a prayer for healing. For healing what? And setting out to draw 1000 flies sounds like a strategy to slow things down. Why? And why flies? The healing and the slowing seem to be connected. Mind keeps racing ahead, but the hand has been moving while thinking runs its endless circle, and now a small fly looks up from the page – a smudged black mirror to my fidgeting, human-centred, centreless world. And looking at this anthropomorphic fly looking back me, four words float into view from The Descent of Inanna, a poem I first heard thirty years ago, and which was first pressed into clay some 6000 years ago: Then a fly appeared. Something begins to gather around the elements of that Sumerian story, begins to stick to this little fly soiling the white page with her filthy black feet. Something pointless, irrelevant, interesting. I like it, and I want to know more. Attention slows as words take up the reins, and the drawings peter out. The 1000-page fly-paper is put on hold, but this first rash of flies has spawned an offspring:
This fly is, of course, on her way to the moon, a stricken chicken-licken who carries news of the great dying underway on Earth, and has gone to get help. Gone to find hare, in fact, ancient moon-animal deity named by the old stories as ‘She who hears the cries of the world’, and to bring her down here, before its too late. And hare, seeing as she does all that unfolds on the world spinning below her, has already seen fly coming, and knows what she’s about long before fly gets there:
So it comes as no surprise
when fly appears
one bedraggled supplicant
weaving an erratic line
across the endless field below
A little speck of ruin
coming out of nothing
to find her
'Our need for an ecology movement, animal rights advocacy, and a world wildlife fund begins in our dreams.'
James Hillman, Dream Animals, Chronicle Books 1997
One year on, I’m still mulling over the many impressions left by last summer’s Soil Cultures Forum. An image that has kept recurring, both during the forum itself and within that year-long cud-chewing, is that of mycelium: both as an ecological entity, and as a metaphor that might prove useful for steering arts practice. What follow here are notes that I took during three Soil Cultures Forum talks, followed by some of the questions that each talk provoked. With regard to the notes, I’m not always sure, now, which parts of the material are mine, and which the speakers’. On the whole it’s the latter, but both my selections and my comments reflect an unapologetically personal bias, that will, I think, speak for itself.
Around eco-criticism lurks the idea of the poem that will save the world: the artwork that will change us, that will bring about a shift in perception, one which will in turn enable us to change our behaviour. Has art, poetry, literature ever achieved this? Perhaps very rarely, possibly not at all. The general case is rather that our work is borne along by cultural trend, but in going with that current it forms a small part of it, one that contributes to it’s strength, momentum. The heroic notion of the artwork as a driver of cultural change is both a distraction, and an insupportable inflation, one that places a weight of expectation on creative practice that it can never live up to. We need to set aside the notion of the artwork as monumental icon of the paradigm-shift we seek, and look instead to creative practice as a quiet turning of the soil: to the artwork, poem and story as micro-organism, as connective mycelium - the manure that feeds and renews the myriad invisible life of that soil.
What might we make of mycelium, of micro-organism, of turning the soil, as metaphors for arts practice, and for communities of practice? Culture imagined as a subsoil fungal web: a connective matrix that sustains communities of organisms - forests, people - through a process of reciprocal nourishment. An example from biology: solitary redwood saplings grown in light conditions equivalent to the interior of a forest will invariably die (Derrick Jensen, Dreams, 7 Stories Press 2011). They survive to adulthood within the forest, only because fungal mycelium conducts nutrients from the surrounding mature trees to the young, until they are able to reach the light themselves. Ecosystems: a dry word for living communities. Their core principle: reciprocity, vs. the tired old fantasy so beloved of end-stage capitalism, ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
We’ve tried an environmentalism based on information. Strangely, that didn’t work. We thought if we gave people the information about what was happening, they’d be changed. But no, they weren’t. Then we tried fear, but that didn’t work either. Frightening people doesn’t change their behaviour. What’s left? The only way that we can address these problems is through love. We have to re-learn, as a culture, to love the earth. Nothing else will do. We have to learn what it means to love the earth, because it is only if we love the earth that we will not be willing to see it destroyed.
So far, so Schumacher College. Great. But if we agree with, and celebrate every word of that – I do - what of it? What are the practical implications of that, for arts practice? Deep Green Resistance, for instance, have framed a campaign of disruptive sabotage, one who’s stated intention is to ‘bring down civilization’, in exactly these terms. Their version of that question: How does love behave, faced with the accelerating destruction of the loved, by one’s ambient culture? On a quiet summer day in Falmouth, that sounds like melodrama. But is it? I meet many at gatherings such as this who reject DGR’s solution, but far fewer who question their diagnosis of the problem. If we’re not making art in that militant spirit, then what, exactly, are we proposing? What manner of healing do art, poetry and storytelling have to offer, as we stand facing an accelerating anthropogenic mass-extinction, besides green message-dissemination and ‘awareness raising’? For those of us who find ourselves persuaded that what DGR et al say about the current trajectory of our culture is broadly true, how else might art and poetry respond to that, if not as a call-to-arms? And why?
Sam begins his talk with two images. The first: an aged sepia photo of a Haida village, which includes a cluster of totem poles, standing at the village edge. The second: a single totem pole, standing alone inside the British Museum.
Our culture venerates the art object, but what is art, as de-contextualized object? The British Museum pole stands as the empty husk of absent stories that once infused and sustained a living culture of inhabitation. To the people who lived with the pole within its original context, the faces it bears were known to them by name, as part of their shared history. Those same beings, stories might appear in a tattoo, on the side of a boat, within a song sung whilst working, festival, taboo. Outside the museum at the heart of this dying culture of occupation, those faces have fallen silent – they tell only of absence. What we need is a renewal of cultural expression, rather than a renewal of artistic expression: to see that the artwork – of whatever kind – is only the visible shoot emerging from the living soil of culture. Renewing that soil is our real challenge, one that doesn’t necessarily require vast amounts of money. As with environmentalism, in our search for cultural adaptation we look in vain to charismatic mega-fauna within the arts, when in fact it’s the underlying soil that we need to attend to, to nourishing that connective culture of relationships, shared stories, communities.
Mycelium, again. Or at least, it seems near at hand. Sam shows us a Vimeo film: the Casa de Paz project in Oakland CA, where he lives. An extraordinary experiment in socially-engaged, spiritually-attuned, communal living. A project based on something Sam refers to as Giftivism: the unfathomable power of acts of gratuitous generosity to change the world. Within the house’s kitchen, we glimpse a pinned-up list of five principles, that steer this experiment in choosing a better way to live. The last principle,‘Sustainability', has been crossed out and replaced with the word 'Regeneration’.
I like that. Perhaps regeneration is a good word for what art might have to offer, in the face of the radical unsustainability of the systems of living that we currently inhabit? I like it both for its inclusivity, and for its unconditionality. A work that all of us micro-organisms can, and do feed: art practice as a call-to-arms, a dream, a prayer, a thought experiment; as a slow turning of the soil that we can all lend our hands to, at any time. No ‘too late’, here.
A curious experience to come across this interview with two old friends in Malvern, the Pureland Buddhist priests Satyavani Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson. Re-reading our discussion after five years, I had the weird sense of being spoken to, here, by someone who seems a good deal clearer on a number of issues than I typically find myself to be, day to day - and whose advice on balancing art and life, directed here to his younger self at the interviewers' request, now addresses me from the opposite direction.
Before turning their lives over to the founding of the Amida Mandala Pureland Buddhist temple in Malvern, Kaspa and Satya, both of whom are also writers, ran an online school of creative of writing called Writing Our Way Home, which is where this interview took place.
An Interview with Mat Osmond, artist and writer
Mat Osmond lives and works in Falmouth, Cornwall. After a number of years working solely in visual art, Mat now combines images and words within an ongoing series of stories and poems. His closest mentors are often poets, especially those whose work speaks to our embeddedness within the natural world. A long-standing, stumbling involvement in Buddhist practice has been a theme behind much of his creative work. In recent years this sense of a common ground between creative and spiritual practice has emerged more clearly and simply than before, through encountering the Pureland approach to spirituality, and the work of the Amida Trust. Mat earns his living lecturing in art and illustration.
Thanks Mat, on to the questions: What drives your creative work?
‘A love of work’ might be the simplest answer. On the one hand, a love of doing it – like an old friend who is there waiting for me when I can make the time to visit them. On the other hand, other writers and artists breathing on my own experience through their work, shaping and enriching my world. I would also say that for me making work is driven by a sense of dumb necessity; a need that doesn’t always assert itself, but remains there in the background, and comes round again in time. One way of saying this might be a coming alive through making work – as if there were a vital dimension of experience that creative work was able to render accessible and workable.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?
I would say; “Don’t worry about not doing your work all of the time, or even most of the time. Don’t be frightened of having other priorities. Love is not only more important than making art: when set apart from love, making art is an irrelevance. You will find, anyway, that your work thrives best in the cracks and gaps of a busy life’s demands.”
How do you keep creating when things get difficult?
Sometimes making work is an invaluable way of processing life’s difficulties, and sometimes making work itself becomes bogged down in intractable difficulty, and the best thing is to simply stop, and do something else for a while. So the short answer is: sometimes I consider it best not to.
How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
At its best, making work offers a ground on which to meet the cosmos, and to relate to our direct experience in ways that are particular to that ground. Work can offer a digestion process: slowly absorbing what is most real and most valuable within the mind’s constant, acquisitive gathering. Creative work (mostly others’) also creates a meeting-space in which friendship can grow, understanding can be shared, common ground can be recognized, and delighted in. At its worst, making work fosters a condition of withdrawn preoccupation that pulls me away from the world into an endless, self-absorbing ‘project’. That’s usually a good sign its time to give it a rest.
What is it like to send your work out into the world?
It is a lovely thing to find the work speaking to others – especially, perhaps, those I have never met in person. In the main my work circulates through artists’ bookfairs and exhibitions, and more recently through the journals of the Dark Mountain Project, who have provided an important inspiration since 2009. Such sending out is usually done with a few friends first, whose responses are often seminal. But the work needs to find a way beyond my personal sphere for the process to feel complete, for it to have taken on a life of its own.
What was the best advice anyone gave to you?
When I was about nineteen, my friend Hester and I visited a Spiritualist Church in Falmouth. I met there an old Cornish man called Harry, with hands like knotted oak roots, who took both my hands in his and said: “There’s something in your life you’re trying to rush. Don’t. You can’t hurry it, and even if you could, you’d regret it. There’s a reason they call it a lifetime’s work.” Twenty-six years later, Harry’s advice remains fresh in my mind, and illuminates many aspects of my life. Harry also said “Just because you can’t see the path, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” I’m grateful to have met him, the more so since I learned that he died shortly after our meeting.
What helps you to pay attention to the world?
After making pictures for years, I have come quite late to writing. I am beginning to discover a space that can open up within the process of writing, where attention to the world is sounded…awakening to things already experienced, but lying dormant within awareness, until they’re turned over through writing, and something already given reveals itself. As I’ve said, in contrast to this, making images often seems to draw me into a space where I become quite out of touch with the world. Head in the clouds, one might say. So now I do both, and that seems to be working much better than just making pictures.
During its brief five-year lifespan from 2009 to 2014, I was lucky enough to work on the MA Art and Environment at Falmouth University. Both then and now, however, my main involevement at Falmouth has been on the MA Illustration: Authorial Practice. 'Authorial illustration’ is a broad church, but a thing that it frequently involves is telling stories in pictures and words. In some cases – including my own - what that comes down to might be more accurately described as a mode of poetry that uses both drawing and writing.
This, a talk from a R.A.N.E. (Research into Art, Nature and the Environment) research meeting in 2011, was a sort of first crack at situating this business of making word-and-picture poems within the ongoing conversation,within eco-poetics and beyond, about sustainability – a tired word, that’s looking even more redundant, five years on, than it did back then.
"Imagine the technologies that would be invented by a culture of inhabitation, that is, a sustainable culture, that is, a culture planning on being in the same place for 10,000 years. That culture would create technologies that enhance the landscape...that would decompose afterwards into components that help, not poison, the soil. The technologies would remind human inhabitants of their place in this landscape. The technologies would promote leisure, not production. The technologies would not be bombs and factory conveyor belts but perhaps stories, songs, and dances..."
Derrick Jensen - Endgame Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilisation. p.186
My starting point here is an article by Arran Stibbe, titled Education for Sustainability and Beyond, Contemplating Collapse, which considers how our understanding of art education’s relevance to the work of achieving sustainability may be quite differently informed by one or another notion of what ‘sustainability’ actually means. Stibbe looks at a range of views, from art students merely using recycled materials, to art practice re-framing their understanding of the human, and of the world. His article is in part a reflection on the work of the Dark Mountain Project (www.dark-mountain.net), a literary movement concerned with the cultural response to the environmental crisis, which champions, in particular, the importance of storytelling.
What are the stories which led us to this pass? What stories may better carry us forward? are two questions at the heart Dark Mountain’s work. As Stibbe suggests, we might most usefully understand such ‘stories’ as the underlying assumptions that shape our values and our discourses. With that idea in mind, I want to draw a rough sketch of two currently prevalent stories about sustainability, and consider what they each might have to say about the value of art education.
Story 1 - Making a Difference
Unsustainability refers to a number of related crises that have been generated by industrial civilization, which can, and must, be solved by the urgent restructuring of that civilization. Achieving sustainability is therefore a matter of political will, technological adaptation, and voluntary cultural change, as we collectively adopt and promote the various corrections by which we may yet head off impending chaos. The role of art education in this work is principally to raise public awareness of the problems, to campaign for change by speaking truth to power, and to embody and promote alternative ways of living, in order that society make these adaptations while there is still time.
Here, what matters is that artists enter the fray, helping to avert catastrophe before it is too late for us to act. Story 1 tends to cast the artist in the role of social educator: improving the viewer, telling them what they need to know, and variously inspiring, provoking or haranguing them to set about what they too ought to be doing, to remedy the situation. In calling for a successfully managed transition to a reformed and sustainable version of industrial civilization, Story 1 also tends to assume that a broad continuity in regard to present structures and ways of living can be maintained within such a transition, if only the right choices are made - albeit made within a rapidly closing window of time.
Stibbe challenges the validity of an education system based on such assumptions of continuity, arguing that students, and all of us, are already facing fundamental discontinuity in regard to our present ways of living. He suggests that we might do better to speak in terms of educating for unsustainability – an idea whose implicit priorities may turn out to be utterly different to highlighting what we can or should be doing to achieve sustainability, in the above sense. Like the Dark Mountain Project themselves, then, Stibbe’s perspective is based on a rather different notion of the role of the arts in addressing a situation of radical unsustainability, to that above. Recovering from Civilization might be a more accurate term for this second perspective:
Story 2 - Recovering from Civilisation Industrial civilization is inherently and irredeemably unsustainable. With accelerating speed it is eroding the ecological base on which it rests, and within the foreseeable future it will therefore bring about its own unraveling, at least as it is currently conceived. This process of transition, already well underway, is not a matter of political will, nor of our willingness to change. It is not being led by preemptive adjustments such as streamlined, renewable energy use and willingly moderated patterns of consumption. It involves the unorchestrated collapse of our current way of living, over an uncertain period of time, despite our governments’ dogged attempts to maintain business as usual.
In this second scenario, achieving sustainability is less a matter of heading off that process of change, than of responding to it creatively, and from a position of informed understanding, instead of burying our heads in the sand - including the sand of false hope. As above, this requires gaining insight into the nature and root causes of unsustainability, and beginning to envision alternative ways of living that are not marked by the compulsive consumption, systemic violence and anthropocentric insanity intrinsic to industrial civilization. But in Story 2 (to borrow from Stibbe), while the value of art education might include questioning “the social and cultural structures that underpin an unsustainable society” the purpose of such critique is not “the unrealistic expectation that students can contribute on a large enough scale and in a short enough time to make society sustainable”; it is rather “to expose and record unsustainable social structures” in order to help those who follow us to create “a very different basis for their emerging communities.” Educating for unsustainability involves a “preparation for what comes next…preservation of vital knowledge from the past… pockets of resilience, forging new ways to live on very different principles.”
Activists identifying with Story 1 have accused advocates of Story 2 of fatalism, of despair, of giving succor to business-as-usual vested interests, and in particular of apocalyptic zeal. They, in turn, have portrayed Story 1 as selling the despair of false hope - a hope which requires an unsupportable denial of the evidence. They have also criticized the apocalyptic rhetoric concerning what will happen if we don’t succeed, invoked by Story 1 to frighten people into action. Both stories agree that we are faced with a situation of accelerating change, but it seems they have rather different views of the challenges and the opportunities afforded within that process of change.
Recuperation: towards a culture of inhabitation
Perhaps offering us a bridge between these polarised views of sustainability, the eco-philosopher David Abram (Becoming Animal, 2010) speaks of his research as a work of recuperation, complementary to his own commitment to environmental activism. Without deflecting from the urgency of such activism, this work recognizes the need for a parallel process of cultural recuperation, as the basis for a genuine renewal of the social and political domains.
In terms of framing art practice, this word recuperation is, for me, a far more helpful idea than sustainability. In its everyday use, recuperation isn’t really something one achieves, although it may require us to drop certain toxic habits - including, typically, excessive or unnessary activity. Abram calls this process a work, but his choice of word makes it sound quite an unhurried sort of work – more a matter of slowing down, than of springing into action. We don’t, after all, ever make ourselves better. Recuperation happens of itself, when the conditions allow. Such conditions include, in some cases, the inevitable process of dying.
Seen in these terms, unsustainability could be viewed as primarily a matter of our relating in an insane manner to the conditions that sustain us. Regardless of distracting and hypothetical arguments about what we might or might not be able to do to affect the future course of large-scale transitions, this work of recuperation perhaps requires, first and foremost, that we wake up to our present condition of radical dependency: dependency on the dynamic life patterns, the myriad webs of being within which we co-arise, moment to moment.
The role of art education within such a process of recuperation might include the means by which we articulate and inhabit that radically dependent condition, and in doing so, begin to foster a shared culture of inhabitation – a mode of living based on awareness of, and reverence for that which sustains us. A way of living as if we actually planned, as Derrick Jensen suggests, on sticking around.