Haunted Landscapes: Nature, Super-Nature & the Environment

I’ve just returned from a conference called Haunted Landscapes: Nature, Super-Nature & the Environment at Falmouth University. I went partly to give a paper (see abstract below) that would allow me to test out thinking I’ve been doing around issues relating to animism and our need to recognise that we live in a polyverse (a constellation of worlds) rather than a universe, and partly in the hope of catching up with friends and colleagues.

An unexpected and very real pleasure was to see Dr Adeline Johns-Putra, who has moved from Exeter to Surrey University since I last saw her. Among her various roles Adeline is the Chair of asle-uki The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (UK & Ireland), which was founded in 1998 and gave its support to the conference. One of the many interesting aspects of the way the conference was put together was the weight given to visual art and the inclusion of two artists’ panels (which in turn included two colleagues it was very good to see – Anne Robinson (from LAND2), and Gina Wall (from PLaCE, Scotland). This approach gave added weight to a very interesting inter-disciplinary (indeed almost multi-constituency) exchange. Having spent some time talking to Adeline I’m very much hoping that LAND2 and asle-uki can work together at some point in the future which, if her initial discussions with Judy Tucker are anything to go by, could happen in the not too distant future.

I’m also particularly pleased to have met Dr Ruth Hehold, who organised the conference, and Mike Tresidder, who teaches Cornish and works for the Cornish Language Partnership/Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek . Mike gave a fascinating paper on the history and particularities of the Cornish Language and, talking to him later, I found he was able to give me a number of helpful insights about the relationship between Cornish and other Brythonic-derived languages and the different cultural roles they play in the modern regions/nations where they’re now spoken. This provided further food for thought in relation to my recent exchanges around the Cliff McLucas seminar in Aberystwyth.

I found myself presenting as part of a panel called Poetics alongside the poet Alyson Hallet, who’d been a visiting speaker for PLaCE at UWE back in December 2010. This was very fortunate for me because her powerful, moving and highly poetic paper – Hearing Voices That Are Not There – broke much of the ground I then tried to cover from another angle. Her web site – thestonelibrary.com – is well worth a visit.    


Since 1999 I have been ‘deep mapping’ the traces, locations, and implications of a quasi-pagan, ‘animist’ mentalité that permeates the oldest Borders ballads, sometimes called the ‘supernatural ballads’ (of which Thomas Rhymer and Tam Linn are probably the best known). My concern has however been primarily with the possible implications of that tradition – when seen through the creative lens of testimonial imagination – for the development of contemporary cultural praxis. This in many ways parallels Felix Guattari’s promotion of ‘ecosophy’ – namely of a practical, transversal thinking that works at and across the intersections of environment, society, and that confluence of persona and forces we call ‘the self’.

In this illustrated presentation I will draw on my own research, creative work,  and texts such as Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland (Sussex Academic Press, 2010), to connect ecosophical thinking both with a tradition of vernacular singing and those elements of my work inspired by that tradition.

My aim in doing so is to illuminate an ecological praxis that acknowledged the centrality of continual flow, flux, or translation of energy and matter across the semi-permeable borders that differentiated one region, society, or person from another. From this perspective physical locations – landscapes – are indeed best understood as: “a polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates” (Ingold 2000: 201). It then follows that the environment of living beings as ‘landscape’ becomes: “a tangle of interlaced trails, continually raveling here and unraveling there” (Ingold 2011: 71), in much the same way as the traditional song landscapes of the ‘supernatural’ ballads heard through time.