The only sounds that Adam could hear were the cries of the red kites and buzzards as they searched for carrion. That and the sloshing of water everywhere. As he stepped onto an iron girder he squeezed the water from his dirty trouser legs.
He wasn’t sure whether there were any other living humans as he clambered over what had once been an ocean-going cruise liner. The aquatic monstrosity was now lying virtually upside down in the middle of the river Tyne. Adam thought he might be able to find something edible if he could find an entry point.
It seemed odd to Adam that he had only seen a few rotting bodies during his hand to mouth existence. Maybe the profusion of kites and buzzards had cleared the high ground of many of the corpses. On second thoughts Adam knew that this was not an adequate explanation; if it had been he would have seen plenty of skeletal remains on higher ground. A much more likely explanation was that the majority of the population had been washed out to sea, or had simply sunk beneath the water which was now enveloping what had once been the Newcastle and Gateshead city centres.
He was now standing on firm ‘ground’ – or rather, on the ship’s belly which lay diagonally a good three or four metres above the polluted water. He had to use his hands to maintain balance as he edged towards a broken window. Once inside the hulk he pulled on his mask and began to explore the drowned leviathan. Even with the mask on he could smell the familiar bouquet of death. Bloated bodies, looking like shoals of puffer fish, floated just inches below the surface of the water.
Greta Thunberg tells us to be scared: T.S.Eliot said ‘mankind cannot bear too much reality: Gurdjieff said we are automata; we live like sleepwalkers and that planet Earth is a far outpost in the galaxy, populated by psychotic beings (so did Douglas Adams); Eckhart Tolle says many of us are living ‘unconscious lives.’ David Attenborough appears on countless television programmes warning us about species extinction and climate catastrophe; Gandhi said there was enough produce on the planet for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed; William Blake said we are blind, that the fool sees not the same tree as the wise person and that heaven is in a wild flower; Extinction Rebellion disrupts city life; Friday School Protests become global, and in 2008 a project called Dark Mountain launches its Manifesto. Here are some quotes from it:
The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.
The authors point out that thinkers have always been aware of the fragility of life and that ‘civilisation’ is skin deep. They quote Joseph Conrad and then this apt simile from Bertrand Russell:
Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that the novelist ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
It is tempting to quote more and more but I’ll leave it to readers to read the whole Manifesto online (it’s on the Dark Mountain website: https://dark-mountain.net/) I’ll just quote one more part:
We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age – the age of ecocide. To name it thus is not to presume the outcome, but simply to describe a process which is underway. The ground, the sea, the air, the elemental backdrops to our existence – all these our economics has taken for granted, to be used as a bottomless tip, endlessly able to dilute and disperse the tailings of our extraction, production, consumption. The sheer scale of the sky or the weight of a swollen river makes it hard to imagine that creatures as flimsy as you and I could do that much damage.
For those of us who can bear as much reality as is necessary, reading the Manifesto will confirm what we have been aware of all along. Other people may regard it as alarmist but this position is being shown to be based on wishful thinking and ignorance as the evidence of the human-caused destruction mounts each day.
First, we have to diagnose the problem. I would suggest the Manifesto does this clearly, radically and evidentially. Then we have to seek remedies. This seems straightforward doesn’t it?
(Actually, Dark Mountain’s approach is quite modest: it is primarily about the arts; that is, the project is about providing a platform for writers and artists as we head into the unknown.)
In this article, I simple want to address the predicament we find ourselves in now, more generally. It takes a pandemic to wake us up it seems. It has forced many of us to differentiate between the inessential and the essential. Do we really intend to carry on having two or three holidays abroad? How many businesses are benefiting humankind as opposed to destroying the environment or alienating human beings with their soul-destroying products? [Not to mention arms production and other life-destroying technology!]
The response to Covid has been global (is global) and has radically changed our lifestyles. This shows that governments, organisations and individuals can use the wonderful gift we have as humans – that is, we can get together to collectively use our brains to affect change and solve problems. (Obviously some countries have dealt with the pandemic much better than we in the UK have.) Notwithstanding the note of absolutism sounded by Dark Mountain, that of ecocide being an unprecedented challenge, it should be possible to turn the tide even at this late stage. Unfortunately, species extinction and climate catastrophe don’t seem to be as immediate challenges compared to Covid 19. They are more amorphous, less graspable than the pandemic. Which is ironic as climate change and habitat destruction could end up with the extinction of homo sapiens (I always think it ironic; this classification of us as ‘wise’).
I am not an economist but recently I saw a book with the title, The End of Capitalism. This idea that our political systems are becoming outmoded seems to be in the air. In my opinion, and that of the Manifesto authors, Capitalism as we have know it is the ultimate cause of our present predicament. With its crude credo of economic growth at all costs, it has raped the earth, caused ongoing species extinction, displaced whole populations, alienated us from each other (Marx was not alone in thinking this; there were also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to name two other contemporary figures); caused climate change and even caused the various pandemics we have witnessed. (Would viruses jump from animal to human if we didn’t have hundreds of thousands -millions?- of human beings working in appalling sanitary conditions killing and handling animals, many of them wild animals?)
William Blake’s little drawing, I want, represents the ‘engine’ of the capitalist project and shows how consumerism feeds on itself. There is no end to ‘wanting more’ and we need to learn how to be content with less. This was the message of a lot of writers in the sixties such as E. F. Schumacher with his Small is Beautiful.
If capitalism is not replaced with something more equitable, more humane and more ecological it could be responsible for the ultimate extinction.
We can’t say we haven’t seen this coming; to the names of Conrad and Bertrand Russell could be added the following random selection:
William Wordsworth, H. G. Wells, Theodore Rosak, Krishnamurti, Eric Fromm, Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, Rachel Carson, Marjory Stoneman, Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman and Wendell Berry.
I am not so idealistic as to imagine capitalism will be dismantled tomorrow. I am thinking long term; fifty or a hundred years from now. If we survive that long I imagine capitalism will be viewed as a primitive system on a par with feudalism.
Societies cannot be transformed to become more humane and equitable without a concomitant transformation of consciousness. This may well be a subject of my future posts.
Nightingales have a special significance for me; when I first saw and heard one in France I had an experience of the ‘numinous.’ I describe this briefly in another post titled, Keats’ Nightingale.
I even coined the term, ‘the nightingale effect’ to describe any time and instance when we see the world anew, with child-like eyes, completely devoid of pain or disharmony.
John Clare (1793-1864) used to be described as a ‘peasant poet’ because he had not had much of a formal education, if any. However we must remember Bernard Shaw’s quip about his own education, that ‘the only time my education was interrupted was when I went to school.’ The education Clare received from Nature, like Wordsworth, was life-long and deep. Maybe his vision was kept pure because he hadn’t been ‘corrupted’ by the stultifying educational system of his day.?
It’s strange how we have books on our shelves unread or unremembered. I have a 1966 anthology of Clare’s poetry and prose and I certainly have read it. However, I can’t remember this poem, The Nightingale’s Nest, having such an effect on me as when I read it today. It works on a number of levels as all good poetry does. It parallels my own experience of searching for this ‘wonder-bird.’ I wasn’t looking for its nest but simply looking and listening to see if I could find the bird. People who are not birders (to use the American term which has been adopted here in the UK) may wonder what all the fuss is about. This would require an article of its own but for me it combines many things including a sense of the chase, making a list, a sense of achievement, furthering the trait of curiosity, aesthetic pleasure and self-transcendence, if that latter is not too pretentious a term. (Actually, readers now can appreciate this, as witnessed by so many in this unprecedented lockdown situation. Presenters on TV, such as Chris Packham, have talked of the healing power of nature.)
To get back to Clare, the lines, I’ve nestled down/And watched her while she sung – and her renown/Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird/
Should have no better dress than russet brown. . . exactly parallels my response when I first saw one singing. (I’ll add my short poem at the end just to show this similar response.)
The genius of Clare is that he writes of the particular but in so doing he uses the specific as a jumping of platform into a spiritual dimension. (Strictly speaking there are not two things here; the experiences he writes of are all of a whole; the specific and spiritual are two sides of the coin.) Of course, he has this in common with Blake, Wordsworth and many other poets. But, perhaps he is the more consistent in his adherence to his ‘local patch’. Wordsworth travelled a lot in comparison. Anyway, I’ll leave the poem to speak for itself.
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove, And list the nightingale – she dwells just here. Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear The noise might drive her from her home of love; For here I’ve heard her many a merry year – At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day, As though she lived on song. This very spot, Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way – And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got, Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails – There have I hunted like a very boy, Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn To find her nest, and see her feed her young. And vainly did I many hours employ : All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn. And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down, And watched her while she sung ; and her renown Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird Should have no better dress than russet brown. Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy, And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy, And mouth wide open to release her heart Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me Did happy fancies shapen her employ; But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred, All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain: The timid bird had left the hazel bush, And at a distance hid to sing again. Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves, Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain, Till envy spurred the emulating thrush To start less wild and scarce inferior songs; For while of half the year Care him bereaves, To damp the ardour of his speckled breast; The nightingale to summer’s life belongs, And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs, Are strangers to her music and her rest. Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide – Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush – For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest, Her curious house is hidden. Part aside These hazel branches in a gentle way, And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs, For we will have another search to day, And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ; And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows, We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook : In such like spots, and often on the ground, They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look – Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here, Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by – Nay, trample on its branches and get near. How subtle is the bird ! she started out, And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh, Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear, That might betray her home. So even now We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still. See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough, Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill. Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives. We will not plunder music of its dower, Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall; For melody seems hid in every flower, That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ; And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. How curious is the nest ; no other bird Uses such loose materials, or weaves Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves Are placed without, and velvet moss within, And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare, What scarcely seem materials, down and hair; For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives Homes for her children’s comfort, even here; Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near That loves such pleasant places. Deep a down, The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell. Snug lie her curious eggs in number five, Of deadened green, or rather olive brown; And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well. So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
* * *
Last day in France – binoculars at the ready – after sudden rain I walk along steaming tarmac into pine forest shade, pulled by bright sobbing and glissando glide – I know you’re there by your jazzy come-on; I’ve tuned my ears to see round corners! My first glance upwards towards the telephone cable over-shoots – the bird on the wire looks so plain – I don’t catch on to your whispered tones. When I catch up, you’re magnified in a circle – I marvel at your modest plumage, warm brown tail and throbbing throat. A little brown jizz! Your bel canto leaps, your triplets and tremolos are a high wire cabaletta – heard only by me.
Maybe tomorrow you’ll fly south, silently tracking the fine line between light and dark, between seeing and not seeing, while I fly north towards grey skies, terraced houses and blackbirds in the park.
The Clare anthology I have is Clare, New Oxford Series, Edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. (1966) It has a wide selection of poems and prose so you can read the prose description and the subsequent poem.
It’s time for another post. It’s almost impossible to blog at the moment without reference to the pandemic and consequent social (that should really be ‘physical’) distancing. All I will say regarding that is that I’m grateful I’ve got an activity such as painting which I can do inside and is relatively straightforward. If the restrictions last for months it is going to impact on mental health globally, particularly for those who live alone. Yet, on the other hand if this forces all of us to ‘withdraw within and reflect upon ourselves’ that would be no bad thing.
I want to describe the process I go through when I paint in the hope that it may interest those of you who don’t paint and those of you who do, or those of you who have other creative outlets. I also describe how zoologists think about extinction threats.
I find my initial ideas by reading, looking and thinking. I look through bird books and online as I find that birds are an endless source of subject matter. (I’ve been a keen birdwatcher for decades)
Last Christmas my daughter gave me Facing Extinction written by four ornithologists and published by Christopher Helm. The book is a sad testament to how we exploit natural resources for profit but also has some encouraging and heroic stories about conservation of species. One of the birds discussed is the rufous-headed hornbill which is ‘critically endangered.’ ( Zoologists use seven categories of extinction-risk. In increasing order of threat they are, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct.) Although the book is beautifully illustrated this hornbill was not featured but I soon found images online.
The authors of the book explain how deforestation is a major factor in species decline and loss. For example, palm oil plantations are responsible for the full-scale destruction of rain forest habitats. (Most of the tree species in rain forests have taken up to ninety years to reach maturity and they are felled in an afternoon!) The oil from these trees is found in a huge variety of consumer products such as shampoo, peanut butter and biscuits. To reference this I decided to paint a ‘portrait’ of the hornbill next to a palm oil tree.
Here is the initial drawing which has a few notes regarding colours I intended to use. When I ‘compose’ a picture I think about negative space from the beginning. (Negative spaces are the shapes between objects.)
The next image shows one stage of the painting where I have at first painted the palm oil tree before finishing the bird.
This is the finished painting. I wanted to paint the out-sized bill in bright colours and to suggest its horny texture. You may also notice I’ve added more feathery texture to the neck and more leaf fronds on the right hand side.
The overhanging fronds may suggest a protective covering for the hornbill but if you look closely the tips of the fronds appear as if they are slashed. Why is this? This is where a title of a painting is crucial, just as with a poem. I sent the finished painting to a few friends (on WhatsApp) and got responses along the lines of ‘vibrant’ and ‘uplifting’. Now, see how your view changes with two alternative titles. Firstly, Rufous-headed hornbill, secondly, Critically Endanged. Obviously I would opt for the second but I must admit that I painted the palm tree with as much care and attention as the hornbill.
I would use the term ‘eco-art’ to describe most of my recent paintings. At first glance this one may remind you of a poster for a Caribbean holiday and I do wonder if this was a subconscious factor in its composition. Without the title, perhaps viewers may simple see this work as a colourful painting?
As a postscript, climate change will probably pose as many problems as the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps we are at a turning point in history now and our very survival will be in question if we do not seriously address this problem. It takes an invisible ‘enemy’ like a virus to get the engines of government and communities engaged. Climate change does not seem as immediate as Covid 19 but both phenomena show how interconnected everything is. Covid 19 has caused a global response. What will it take to get governments to take comparative action to mitigate against the dire effects of climate change?
It is February so this is my monthly posting. I could write reams about climate change but will resisit that temptation. Most of us know the facts by now and some of us may even agree with Greta Thunberg that we should be scared!
Instead, I will describe something else. I have recently found good canvases with paintings on them in charity shops. It all started with the Christmas challenge (see my last post) which alerted me to a cheap way of finding painting ‘supports.’ The painting here is done on hardboard, another source from a charity shop. Usually if you find a framed picture there will be hardboard on the back. I take this out and prime it with Gesso and hey presto there is your support for a new painting. It has the aditional advantage that you can return the painting to the original frame when it is finished!
As a former art teacher, I’ve always been interested in art history but during the last few years I’ve had an opportunity to appreciate works of art in a more considered way. Firstly I looked at Renaissance works when I wrote a manuscript about that period of art and then I examined William Blake’s work as I attempted to write about his illustrations for the Book of Job. A few months ago I formed an art appreciation group with the purpose of visiting galleries and talking about the art there. It is much easier to admire the work of established artists than create your own but perhaps my immersion in world-renowned art works has nudged me in the direction of my own creativity.
Perhaps the foregoing facts started something in my subconscious. However, this painting of mine was not initially my own idea; a friend bought a canvas in a charity shop which was half coloured in a pinky-crimson paint. She wondered if I might like to make a painting of it! I decided to take up the challenge and see if I could incorporate the crimson colour as sky in a landscape. I would not usually choose a palette of reds and pinks but it is good to think outside of your comfort zone in art as well as in life. My friend wanted the painting for her bedroom.
The idea came to me to reference other artists in my painting; particularly to use well known motifs. I chose Cezanne and his Mont Sainte Victoire which he painted many times. The other motif of the house came from Paul Klee’s small painting, Arctic Thaw which is not as well known.Cezanne is often considered the father of modernism and I have always found Klee’s work delightfully whimsical. Apart from this starting point I had no idea how the painting would develop or turn out. It is a mistake to over-plan paintings and so I incorporated accidental shapes and colours as I worked using a large brush to begin with. I started with the Cezanne mountain so that had to be planned in so far as the shape would have to be recognisable to the viewer. The strange Klee house was also painted with the correct proportions. The rest of the painting developed more spontaneously – I’m not sure where the palm tree came from but I like the idea of combining disparate objects – do palm trees grow in mountainous regions? Um, maybe, but mine isn’t a particular species anyway, it is more generic and stylised with its nod to cubism. I added the horse rider to suggest a narrative.
I chose greens and yellows to act as complementary colours to the reds and pinks. I kept the tonal values close to emphasise the pastel mood of the painting. To use a musical analogy the painting is more an adagio than a scherzo. Paintings are often compared to music – the composition, colours, shapes and tones have their equivalents in music. I like to balance positive space with negative space and you will see how the latter relate to the former if you imagine the composition as abstract. If you can invert your screen you can also see the relation of shapes to each other better.
Looking at a paintings can also be compared to listening to music. There should be an indefinable aesthetic feeling of pleasure or an ‘aha’ moment when you take time to really look at a painting. Perhaps the computer screen is not always the best medium for this lingering appreciation.
I’m reasonably happy with the finished painting and enjoyed the process which involved making intuitive decisions about shapes, colours, tones and composition.
I first came across this description by J.B. Priestley in a wonderful book of his called, Man and Time. It is an exploration of time from different points of view; scientific, literary and religious. It is beautifully illustrated in colour. He was fascinated with phenomena such as pre-cognition and dreams and wrote his famous ‘time-plays’ such as Dangerous Corner to dramatise various anomalies and theories. The poem is based on one of Priestley’s own dreams.