Tracing the story of the idea’s inception one rainy night in a South Devon woodland, this became the Foreward to our 2022 art.earth publication Borrowed Time: on death, dying and change:
Although several years were yet to pass before we turned fully towards it, the idea which would become Borrowed Time – a year long conversation between ecological grief, death culture and art, and the foundation of this book – was seeded one rainy night in June 2016 during an improvised ceremony called We Weave and Heft by the River.
The ceremony took place in a small woodland on the Sharpham estate in South Devon, 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.
Billed as an all-night grief workshop, the gathering proposed a turn towards the deepening sense of mourning that surrounds our culture’s impact on non-human life. The prospect both intrigued me and provoked a vague sense of alarm. What would it entail to enter that territory with a group of strangers?
Extinction was not, in fact, the theme that had brought us together that summer. The all-night ceremony was embedded within our first art.earth summit on the theme of Landscape, Language and the Sublime. But if it wasn’t centre stage, ecocide was a persistent presence within this first of our gatherings. Mass extinction had shadowed, explicitly or implicitly, most of the conversations which unfolded over the previous two days, at times lending an uneasy surreality to the exchanges taking place there. Most of these conversations fell under the broad umbrella of eco-criticism, a phrase that often seems to carry with it the implied proposition that an accelerating collapse of the biosphere provides, first and foremost, a fine provocation for some serious and innovative critical thinking.
During the three hours I spent under a rain-pattered awning in the pitch dark of the Sharpham woods, the discussion took a less heady turn. It turned out, in the main, to be a sharing of memories and a telling of stories. The manner of the sharing was also a lesson in the uses of ritual, and in the curious power of lightly choreographed gesture and physical process to ground and embody thought and feeling. In this instance, the power of such gestures to enable us to set down whatever sorrows, spoken or unspoken, we arrived with. To hand them over.
As each new story emerged into the unhurried silence which opened between them, an elected witness was asked to take a length of twine, to thread it through one of the clay seed-balls that lay piled beside our fire, then to bind that 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 the night’s memories wound into them, and left there to sow cornflowers, poppies and other flowers in the South Hams soil.
The memories that surfaced during that first phase of the night included personal bereavements. The recent loss of fathers was a common theme. They included the lasting shock of both witnessing and being an inadvertent party to a deer’s violent death. They included seemingly incidental memories, from childhood or from the margins of busy lives, that stood out as little tells – signifiers of the greater currents of loss that our individual lives are caught up in, but which remain somehow too big to see.
As I sat listening to others’ stories I was struck by an image from my own childhood, one that returned to me that night across more than 40 years. How, after every car journey during 1970s Cotswold summers, the windscreen would have fly splats large and small plastered all over it; how the morning after a summer night drive, the Cortina’s chrome grille between would be filled with the broken bodies of moths drawn to the headlamps; how on such drives the darkness ahead, as I peered between my parents’ heads from the back seat, would be thick with swirling moths whitened in the glare of the car’s headlights.
These memories arrived with a quiet, visceral sense of shock as I realised how long it had been since I’d encountered anything remotely like that. A change whose terrifying scale is now well documented, of course, but one which for all that remains curiously hard to grasp. Too continuous, perhaps, to be seen for what it is, and for what it means.
One of the ritual’s participants, an African botanist and artist, offered a term for negotiating ecological grief that’s stayed with me. Welling: a word to welcome and to un-fuss the arrival of tears as she went about her fieldwork. She spoke, through tears, of a surprise encounter with a specimen of a thought-to-be-extinct flower: of the welling that came with the realisation that this small flower was among the very last of its kind, and would soon be gone forever. 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 more than once of Steven Jenkinson – Our Master of Unceremony, as poet Anita Barrows once described him – who teaches his students to honour grief as the form of praise that it is. An idea made familiar by many others, of course – Jenkinson’s own mentor Martin Prechtel, the artist Chris Jordan, and C.S.Lewis all come to mind, each of them affirming grief as a form of love. Our sorrow an expression of value for what we mourn.
I liked this idea of sorrow as praise, new to me as it then was, and its affirmation of a response-ability that all of our criticality is surely of little real use to us without, in the face of biosheric collapse. But reckoning also struck a more personal chord for me. Truth be told, around the unthinkable hyper-object reality of mass extinction and runaway global heating, welling is not a thing that often visits me.
Perhaps my emotional literacy doesn’t reach that far or that deep. Grief is out there, for sure, but for me it generally lives somewhere more obscure, more remote than tears. Even during personal bereavements it’s often seemed that tears have had to cross some great distance to find me, arriving from a far remove to which they’ve soon withdrawn. A welling, yes, but one with a long tidal reach. And around these greater planetary currents of loss, grief seems known as a thing inferred mainly by – or as – absence. A numbness or muteness, one that brings with it an obscure sense of pressure as we find ourselves unable to towards what’s constantly, insistently there. Or rather, not there.
Reckoning seems well suited to our navigation of this obscure, absent-present grief. It also speaks eloquently to art and poetry, and to how they enable us enter such territory together. A word with which to weigh the difference between thinking a thing, including one known only as absence, and actually tasting and touchingthat thing – being present to it.
What do we expect of art-making before the implacable escalation of anthropogenic mass-extinction? Often the rhetoric is of motivating, mobilising, ‘awareness-raising’. The artwork enlisted to the good fight, a useful weapon in the increasingly frantic struggle to turn this omnicidal culture around ‘before it’s too late’. As Dougald Hine has put it, the artist is typically enlisted to this campaign as a sophisticated message-disseminator, one whose power to connect head with heart, fact with consequence, might finally stir the rest of us from our paralysed inertia.
As an on-off maker of things I’ve long found myself curiously incapable of engaging with any such sense of mission. Facetiously, but without irony, I’d say art has more important work to be doing than saving the planet. What art brings to this conversation is nothing less than a means of soul retrieval. The recovery of lost soul. And reckoning feels like a good name for this messier, more slippery process of repair. It’s a work – a process – that cannot be hurried, it seems, however urgent our shared need. Such reckoning is surely more crucial now than ever, as we stare dumbly at the utter devastation this culture has wrought, alternately wringing our hands, numbing out, or caught up in activism’s frantic busyness.
So if we look to our work as creatives of whatever stripe to articulate a shared ecological recovery, what do we find? For my part, as an on-off maker of things what I notice without fail is that the work cringes in embarrassment, as if this eco- rhetoric placed an impossible weight of expectation on these uncertain, meandering threads of thinking-as-making. But if instead I turn to writing and drawing for this more intimate work of reckoning, I meet a process unfurling of itself, with or without my conscious involvement and intent.
There’s a kind of welling present within that unfurling at times, but one that moves implicitly within the body of the work, and has strangely little to do with any cathartic or confessional outpouring of emotion.
I’m grateful to have come away from the Coastal Reading Group’s ceremony with a word for this ongoing work, as I am for those good hours of fire-lit conversation under the heavy patter of rain on tarp, as we bound each others’ stories into wool and clay, held their weight in our hands, then placed them into the earth.
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