Robert Macfarlane

A bestiary of wonders, or, ‘Attenborough on acid’

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

Wallace Heim writes:

Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. A 21st Century Bestiary came out this month, published by Granta. Here on Ashdenizen, Caspar contributed to our metaphors for sustainability with coral reef. And on the Ashden Directory, he was part of our panel on theatre and climate change in 2006.

Robert Macfarlane calls The Book of Barely Imagined Beings a genre-bending grimoire, a spell-book of species.

Reviewers are marveling at how the compendium of real animals, from the axolotl to the zebra fish, prompts Caspar’s essays on the nature of seeing, walking or being:

Philip Hoare in the Literary Review

Roy Wilkinson for Caught by the River<
Bella Bathurst in the Daily Telegraph
Stuart Kelly in the Scotsman

John Lloyd for We Love This Book
Anthony Davies in the Ham and High.

The advance reviewsare by Robert Macfarlane, Frans de Waal, Callum Roberts, Simon Critchley, Roman Krznaric and Richard Holloway.

Real Monstrosities calls it ‘fantastic!‘.

Caspar blogs at The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

ashdenizen is edited by Robert Butler, and is the blog associated with the Ashden Directory, a website focusing on environment and performance.
The Ashden Directory is edited by Robert Butler and Wallace Heim, with associate editor Kellie Gutman. The Directory includes features, interviews, news, a timeline and a database of ecologically – themed productions since 1893 in the United Kingdom. Our own projects include ‘New Metaphors for Sustainability’, ‘Flowers Onstage’ and ‘Six ways to look at climate change and theatre’.

The Directory has been live since 2000.

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Values of Environmental Writing – Welcome

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

There are at least three research networks looking at environmental and cultural issues currently meeting in programmes of workshops.

CORE, the research network on Creative Research and the Environment, was launched last week in the Art Space Nature rooms at Edinburgh College of Art.  This network spans fine art and landscape architecture and is linked with a larger research project on Antarctic Earth Sciences. Post on launch.

Reflecting on Environmental Change through Site Based Performance held its second meeting in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago.  Post of notes from that meeting.

Values of Environmental Writing Research Network takes its cue from Robert Macfarlane’s 2009 comment, “Many of the new activists are young, and a significant number are recent graduates, emerging from universities across Britain and moving immediately into environmental action.  It would be fascinating to know what literary works have shaped the message and medium of their politics…”

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

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Robert MacFarlane on literature that inspired action

There was a great article on Edward Abbey by Robert MacFarlane in the weekend’s Guardian.  [I’m inclined to superlatives here, as MacFarlane generously bigged up the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre and our fellow organisations TippingPoint, The Ashden Directory and Cape Farewell in the article].

Anyhow, to the point.

MacFarlane writes about how Abbey’s gloriously rambunctious novel Monkey Wrench Gang became the inspiration for the Earth First! environmental movement in the US, who set about turning Abbey’s fiction into non-fiction through a series of direct actions. Climate change, suggests MacFarlane,  requires not just a technological and political shift but a cultural one too – which is what Abbey’s writing set ablaze for the American conservation movement.

But then MacFarlane starts to ponder where that’s going to come from in relation to climate change. American authors, from Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder, Cormac MacCarthy and others have produced significant passionate works which have indeed had a galvanising impact on environmental movements. But where, he wonders, are the British equivalents? The British equivalents, he suggests, have an emotional distance which doesn’t “kick your arse off the page” in the way that Abbey’s prose does. But there’s something else too:

Perhaps the key ethical principle of British environmental literature has been that making us see differently is an essential precursor to making us act differently. So it is that each new generation of British environmental writers finds itself trying to design the literary equivalent of the “killer app”: the glittering argument or stylistic turn that will produce an epiphany in sceptical readers, and so persuade them to change their behaviour. I used to believe in the possibility of this killer app, both as a reader and a writer. But I’m increasingly unsure of its existence. Or, if it exists, of its worth. At least in my experience, environmental literature in Britain gets read almost exclusively by the converted to the converted, and its meaningful ethical impact is minimal tending to zero. As Vernon Klinkenbourg noted with glum elegance last year, most documents of environmental literature are “minority reports – sometimes a minority of one. The assumptions, the hopes, the arguments [of such literature] are contradicted by the way the vast majority of us live, and by the political and economic structures that determine that lifestyle … sceptical readers so seldom pick up this kind of writing, or submit to its evidence.”

The point is that Abbey’s fiction was in many ways hackneyed, fed by the cliche’s of the western pulp novel, but it was great because of the scope of its passion and the sureness of Abbey’s vision. In comparison, are European artists and writers just trying too hard to be clever? Does this create a kind of parochial vision that hobbles artists, blunting their chance of having the kind of impact Abbey did?

One of the things that I hope Arts for COP15 will be able to produce is some idea of how effective the various events are at doing what they all, presumably, set out to do, which us change minds.

Illustration: Robert Crumb-designed sticker for Edward Abbey’s book (1985).

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Robert MacFarlane on Richard Long


A Night of Rain Sleeping Place An 8 Day Mountain Walk in Sobaeksan Korea Spring 1993 by Richard Long, 1993 Courtesy Kunstverein Hannover © the artis

There’s a good article by Robert MacFarlane on Richard Long on Tate Etc, the Tate’s magazine, that attempts to see beyond the usual assumptions people make about Long’s work as “romantic” :

“I feel I carry my childhood with me in lots of aspects of my work,” [Long]remarked. “Why stop skimming stones when you grow up?”

Why indeed? It’s a lovely question – innocently seen and innocently phrased. And Long has never stopped skimming stones, artistically speaking. His hundreds of circles – made around the world in stone, sand, wood, grass and footprints – can be imagined as the ripples of these skimmed stones. To my mind, his work is best understood as a set of persistently childish acts: the outcomes of a brilliantly unadulterated being-in-the-world. The word kindergarten was coined in 1840 by the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852). Kindergarten, literally “a children’s garden”: a school or space for early learning. Froebel (less remembered now than Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, for he didn’t lend his name to his method) wanted to create an environment in which children could be childish in the best sense of that word. Banished from his kindergartens was the Gradgrindian sense of the infant as a vessel to be filled with facts. Instead, he fostered an ideal of the child as micronaut – an explorer of the world’s textures, laws and frontiers, who should be left to make his or her own discoveries through unstructured play. Froebel wanted children to “reach out and take the world by the hand, and palpate its natural materials and laws”, as Marina Warner observes in a fine essay on play, “to discover gravity and grace, pliancy and rigidity, to sense harmonies and experience limits”.

A nature-lover and walker from an early age, Froebel had a passion for the patterns of phenomena, and in particular for what he called “the deeper lying unity of natural objects”. It was for this reason that the early Froebelian kindergartens had few figurative toys. Instead of trains, dolls and knights, there were wooden cubes and spheres, coloured squares and circles, pebbles, shells and pick-up-sticks. Children spent their days singing songs and playing games, arranging the pebbles in spirals and circles, balancing blocks and picking up sticks. This open play was, as Froebel imagined it, the means by which “the child became aware of itself, and its place within the universe”.

Long is a childish artist in the Froebelian sense, and the wild world is his kindergarten. When Clarrie Wallis, curator of the new Tate exhibition, observes that his work is about his “own physical engagement, exploring the order of the universe and nature’s elemental forces… about measuring the world against ourselves”, she could be describing the Froebelian method. For more than 40 years Long has been using his moving body to explore limits, sense harmonies and apprehend balance and scale. His materials and his vocabulary have always been uncomplicated and childish. “I am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means,” he wrote quietly in 1982, “walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.” Again in 1985: “My pleasure is in walking, lifting, placing, carrying, throwing, marking.” In 1968 he showed a sculpture of sticks cut from trees along the Avon and laid end to end in lines on the gallery floor. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight, lay them straight.

It is the play of “the solemn child”, as MacFarlane says. Read the whole article on Tate Etc’s website.

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Apocalyptica: No Blade of Grass

No Blade of GrassIf, like me, you are the sort of person who would run a mile rather than listen to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, take courage and think again. This week the programme is dramatising John Christopher’s classic science-fiction thriller No Blade of Grass. (It’s kind of John Wyndham on steroids: it also became a fairly dire movie). In it, an unknown virus wipes out all the west’s staple crops, leaving Britain starving. The country quickly descends into murderous anarchy.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the apocalyptic meme is so strong right now. It’s there in art, clearly, in movies and in BBC remakes like this and Survivors. Interestingly, just to underline the fact that the long cultural history of apocalyptic visions is not unrelated to our current environmental predicament, there’s a new edition of the book being published, with an introduction from cultural historian and ecologist Robert MacFarlane.

Listen to the drama – this week only – on BBC’s Listen Again here.

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