Archive for the ‘Isles Project’ Category

‘A thick skin is a gift from God’ – advice for introducing new ideas

Monday, November 5, 2007

Some useful thoughts at Creative Think, about being prepared for criticism and ridicule when introducing new ideas; here’s some historical context –

Use_your_shield_260“New ideas can be threatening, and they often provoke a negative reaction.

For example, when the composer Igor Stravinsky first presented his Rite of Spring ballet with its unusual harmonies and primitive rhythms, he was met with a rioting audience.

When Johannes Kepler correctly solved the orbital problem of the planets by using ellipses rather than circles, he was denounced.

When the nineteenth-century Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweiss suggested to his fellow doctors that they could reduce disease by washing their hands in chlorinated lime water before inspecting their patients, he was ridiculed by his colleagues who strongly resented the idea that they were “carrying around death on their hands.”

Be prepared for such a reaction and don’t let it prevent you from acting. As German statesman Konrad Adenauer put it, “A thick skin is a gift from God.”

How strong is your shield?”


The Isles Project is go!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

isles-project-logo.jpg(The title for this post, by the way, is a take on that iconic line, ‘Thunderbirds are go!’, from the 1960s tv puppet series made more recently into a film; which is an all-good and fun – albeit technologised – omen: Wikipedia’s summary –

The series followed the adventures of International Rescue, an organisation created to help those in grave danger using technically advanced equipment and machinery.)

I launched a website for The Isles Project at the weekend (see this previous post). The idea for the project has been bubbling for six or so years, and friends have said I’ve talked about it for almost as long. Now seems a suitable time to progress it with more concerted activity – which means, at the moment, the posting and archiving of entries initially, and gradual ‘pattern recognition’ of themes and threads. Click here for the site.

Dream-permeable cartography

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Robert Macfarlane contrasts two types of map: that of the grid and that of the story.

A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, lent a new authority to cartography. The power of grid maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. But their virtue is also their danger: that they reduce the world only to data, that they record space independent of being.

[…] The grid map has proved an exceptionally efficient method for converting place into resource, and for devising large-scale approaches to a landscape. It is a technique that has brought uncountable benefits and advances with it. But so authoritative is the grid method, so apparently irrefutable the knowledge that it dispenses about a place, that it has all but eliminated our sense of the worth of map-as-story: of cartography that is self-made, felt, sensuous. The grid’s rigorous geometry celebrates precision, and suppresses touch, feel and provisionality.

[…] As the American poet Robert Penn Warren beautifully observed, ‘our maps have grown less speculative, less interested in the elemental possibilities of the Earth’s skin, and that suggests that the Earth has lost it capacity to keep secrets. We tend to look at them for what we want to avoid, rather than what, in good fortune, we might discover. There is not much mystery in a landscape we cannot enter.’

In contrast, story maps

represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and place are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance.

[…] They are deep maps too, that register history, and that acknowledge the way memory and landscape layer and interleave. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, proved upon the pulses of a place, born of experience and of attention.

[…] Maps such as these, held in the mind, are alert to a landscape’s volatility as well as fixtures. They tell of the inches and tints of things. They are born of a sophisticated literacy of place, rather than aspiring solely to the neutral organisation of data. We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp. 141-145); he adds a few examples of those who specialise in map-as-story, such as eskimos. There is also the classic, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, that commemorates his experiences amongst Australian aborigines.

For the love of birds

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mike McCarthy, writing in the Independent about his career as an environmental journalist, asked why birds ‘excite such feeling’ amongst Britons? The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than political parties, for example.

[…] the love of birds seems more widespread, more generalised and more intense than our feelings for any other parts of nature, in Britain at least. It has been commented that, while most mammals exist in a world of dark and smell, we are an exception in that we exist in a world of light and sound, as do birds – and so our sympathies for them are instinctive and immediate.

That’s true as far as it goes, but maybe birds do something more. Perhaps they tap into one of the deepest longings of the human psyche – the longing in us to be free spirits.

Freedom is a notion that in recent years has almost entirely dropped out of the public discourse. When did you last hear it discussed? It doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda in political terms, perhaps because political freedom, in Britain at any rate, is regarded as established. But in personal terms, the question of freedom is enduring. Our personal freedom is circumscribed in millions of ways, from the routines of work and the demands of family to the very process of ageing, and we rail against them. It sometimes feels as though birds, however, transcend these human limits: they are the fastest of all organisms, they defy gravity, they can travel on a whim from one end of the Earth to the other (the arctic tern does exactly that). WB Yeats, looking as he grew old at the wild swans at Coole Park in County Galway, seemed to think enviously of them as eternally free.

“Passion or conquest,” he wrote, “wander where they will, attend upon them still” – this at a time when passion or conquest no longer attended upon him.

Freedom, in fact, seems almost to be the defining characteristic of wild birds, so much so that when it is taken away, we instinctively feel the situation to be unnatural.

A century before Yeats, another poet, William Blake, captured this perfectly in a couplet whose power is not lessened by what we may now feel is an initial edge of sentimentality : “A robin redbreast in a cage,” Blake wrote, puts all heaven in a rage.”

The freedom birds have means that they are harder to see, and so more valued when we see them; their beauty, often tremendous, is more fleeting and so more cherished. But most of all we respond to birds because of our feeling that they are fellow creatures, in the same world of light and sound as we inhabit, which can however in some way break free from that world’s constrictions – the constrictions that for us begin with the first school timetable and end with the wooden box we will finally lie in.

It’s an illusion, of course; but it’s no less a longing for that.

(An aside – I trust the British affinity for birds is wholly unrelated to our love of flying. Brits’ aviation emissions, per capita, top the world – so I wonder what cultural explanations for this there might be? Suggestions please.)

‘We live in loud times’ – a vocal call to listen

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Volume, pace and pitch summon whole worlds. Intonation is a language in itself. The American philosopher and wit, Sidney Morgenbesser, was in the audience at a lecture given by the American philosopher J.L. Austin at Colombia University in the 1950s. When Austin explained that many languages employ the double negative to denote a positive (‘He is not unlike his sister’), but none employed a double positive to make a negative, Morgenbesser waved his arm dismissively, and retorted: ‘Yeah, yeah.’

With the blast and blare of cinemas, restaurants, concerts, computer games and TV commercials,

– add to these the hydraulic waste-collection truck and the carpenter’s screaming, electric blade saw outside my window as I write –

we live in loud times. A recent study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggested that birds that live near motorways can’t hear each other, leading to difficulties in learning songs and communicating with potential mates. Another study found that 5-year old children who attended nursery developed more voice problems that those who didn’t because of the high noise levels and unsympathetic acoustic environment. What’s the effect on humans when voices are submerged by the din? And how can we create an acoustic space in which this suggestive but perpetually elusive instrument, the human voice, can flourish?

To attune properly to the voice we must develop a keener sensitivity, a ‘deep listening’. To start a real conversation about this most vital talent, we need to hear with fresh ears.

– from Anne Karpf’s The Human Voice (pp.290-1)

Mapping a future for ancient trees

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Here is a lovely website – the UK Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt – in which people are invited to find and map ‘all the fat, old trees across the UK’ to create a ‘comprehensive living database’ of ancient trees.

Britain enjoys a rich endowment of trees. Thanks to the Normans, who planted hunting forests, we can claim more ancient ones than any other country in Europe. We haven’t got anything as iconic as the plane tree of Kos in Greece, a descendant of the one under which Hippocrates supposedly taught students 2,400 years ago. But while Kos may have the largest plane tree in Europe, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is possibly the oldest tree in Europe, according to the Woodland Trust, one of the backers of the scheme, which hopes to log 100,000 ancient trees by 2011. It is salutary to be reminded of the grandeur of our trees, as it was 20 years ago this month that the strongest winds for nearly 300 years uprooted 15 million trees.

– from today’s Guardian Environment Leader. Whilst Roger Deakin’s disapproval about the fetishisation of trees (‘Trees to him were herd creatures, best understood when considered in their relationships with one another’ – from Robert Macfarlane’s lyrical memorial article about Deakin) rings true, to my mind the beauty of the Woodland Trust’s project is its collective effort of appreciation. Good.

The Isles Project – what and why – the how’s another question

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I’ve always found the world of the rock-loving geologist difficult to relate to; I don’t know what it is about the discipline of geology that has made it so for me – may be something to do with so much jargon, terminology and a regular lack of poetics in their use of language – and I don’t necessarily mean grand gestures of dramatic metaphor, or the sublime visions of the Romantics.

To give an idea, I love this piece of writing – coming from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – about the British Isles, with its subdued, gentle overtones of genesis.

At the height of the last glacial period, the ice had been so dense and extensive that its weight depressed the land beneath it into the earth’s mantle. Think of that: it caused an entire country to sink down into the earth. Conversely, so it was that when the ice melted and its weight was lifted from the land, the bones of the earth rose – in some places by hundreds of feet. Geologists call this effect ‘isostatic rebound’. The rebound was most pronounced in the north of Britain, where the ice had been most massive; on the south coast, by way of counteraction, the coastline dipped.

As the ice melted, and the land tilted, the oceans grew. For glaciation had stored a significant proportion of the word’s water. The run-off from the melting ice across the northern hemisphere joined the oceans, raising sea-levels by nearly 400 feet in places, and transforming the map of the world. Among those transformations was the cutting, sluicing and filling of the channel between what is now England and what is now France. The ancient land-bridge of chalk, weald sands and clay was gouged over thousands of years by rivers. As the sea levels continued to rise, the water flooded up the river valleys, ate at the hills, and eventually overran the bridge entirely. Britain was islanded: the archipelago was made.

The ice retreated up through the land – lobes, fingers, sheets, reversing irregularly, northering. The land it left behind was at first entirely barren. Bare drifts of till, comminuted earth, a glittering domain of boulders, pebbles, sand and clay, rich in metals that had been filtered and sorted by the ice’s latticework. Pools of silver water gleaming in the hollows.

It was in those pools that the deepwood began to found itself. Sphagnum bogs thickened there, the bogs became stew-pots for floating mats of heath, and on those heaths grew dwarf forests of decidous trees: willows, briches and pine, relatively arctic trees, easily dispersed, finding shelter from the glacial winds in depressions and niches.

The wood deepened, keeping a steady distance from the ice: alders in thick stands along the river valleys, willow on the boggy ground, oak, lime, hazel, ash and hornbeam, and through it all a scrub, filling the aisles of the wood and thronging its borders.

In this way, there emerged a youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the glaciers. The blue ice gave to the green wood. Where the wood caught fire and burned, as it did at times, the energy of suns was returned to the air.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp.93-4)

This is the kind of ‘more-than-human’ history I wrote about before at Sumptuous World – ‘New ways of doing history’ parts I & II. I love it because I believe those of us in the developed world need more than ever a sensibility of place such that we can more easily see and feel where we are, where we’ve come from, and what possibilities we have for what’s increasingly appearing to be a fairly rocky road ahead. It’s the orientation in this kind of writing that has led me to the idea for what I have called the Isles Project. isles-project-logo.jpg

It amazes me that, with all its history and influence, there is no generic, situated (in London?) introduction to the British Isles on the cultural landscape; the British Museum, after all, is in the main a reflection (an inspiring reflection? A celebration of empire?) of most other places but here and has little about Britain or the British.

It’s my contention that the time is ripe for a mark on the cultural landscape that does just this: tells the story of these lands, and the relations between people and the lands, from a weaving of human and more-than-human, and poetic, standpoints. I can think of few better ways to adjust the cultural landscape to the socio-economic and political priorities posed by the profound – and potentially deeply disorientating and upsetting – challenges of sustainability.

Robert Macfarlane, incidentally, was a friend of Roger Deakin (see previous here), is a Cambridge University fellow and an instigator of the conference on nature and literature and the eco-literature Archipelago publication.

Passion and wonder

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Here’s a conference I wish I’d known about earlier: Passionate Natures, held in June at Cambridge, with quite a line-up of speakers. It was advertised with the strapline,

The world shall not perish for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder

Discovered via the website of the new eco-literary publication, Archipelago.

New ways of doing history (pt.2)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Whilst I think Simon Schama’s History of Britain DVD series excellent and enjoyable, it upholds the long, noble tradition of history primarily being about homo sapiens. In my view, all the visuals, and places visited by the series’ production team reinforce the notion that the ‘Britain’ in the title is merely backdrop and scene-setting to the real drama, the human one. The perspective that homo sapiens is of a different order to the rest of the natural world (an order that’s self-contained, separate and uniquely capable and innovative) could be more self-fulfilling prophecy than definitive truth. It’s a perspective that’s a tad simplistic and fails to grapple with the paradox of us being both apart from and a part of the wider world – IMHO. So how can this paradox be better conveyed through a museum-cum-exhibition? I wonder…

Food for thought is this video about our close, more-than-human relative, the bonobo monkey. Savage-Rumbaugh moves me more than the strained, reverential tones of Sir Richard Attenborough, probably because she’s coming from a place of lived knowledge, where she interacts with and gets to know her subject as a subject. I’ve always found Attenborough difficult to listen to, probably because he has tended to operate using describing knowledge, relating information about his objects of interest as objects. From my perspective, it’s sadly little surprise that the bonobo is close to extinction. If they have to be in a zoo, let’s not shield the public’s gaze from bonobos, just because of their very-human sexual behaviour. Or would this be voyeuristic? If so, what then is a zoo?