Monthly Archives: November 2020

Travelling in the time of COVID-19: William Least-Heat Moon, Cliff McLucas and Grace Wells.

I have been re-reading William Least-Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (A Deep Map). I’m doing this both for pleasure and, as it now happens, in preparation for a presentation I hope to be able to deliver in July next year, COVID-19 permitting. I have also been intellectually accompanying a PhD student, registered with the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is working on a deep mapping project in Glasgow. In the process, it’s become apparent that the website dedicated to Cliff McLucas, on which his Ten Things I Can Say About These Deep Maps was reproduced, is no longer accessible. (Since this becomes increasingly hard to find, and for those who don’t know this wonderfully provocative manifesto, I’ve reproduced it at the end of this post). 

What re-reading PrairyErth has reminded me is both how much Cliff McLucas, Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks took from it and how much they made what they learned very much their own. Even today, it astonishes me just how rich and varied are the strategies Least Heat-Moon either employs himself or suggests his readers try for themselves. If I were still teaching and had a free hand, I would run an entire transdisciplinary Masters degree in deep mapping as fieldwork on the basis of students making a close reading of those strategies; everything from night walking (‘In the Quadrangle: Homestead’) and the use of totemic ornithology (‘Out of the Totem Hawk Lexicon’) to gathering oral environmental history (‘Upon the First Terrace’) and a good understanding of the politics – both local and national – of the land (‘In the Quadrangle: Elk’). As Shellie Banga has pointed out, the whole weight of PrairyErth lies in its rejection of what Least Heat-Moon refers to as the dominant “egological” culture. Hence, as she observes, its “notable absence of a personal narrative”; an absence predicated on Least-Heat Moon’s aversion to “solipsistic approaches to place-based literature that at times turn books about place into self-indulgent books about writers themselves”. The first essay of the first module of my imaginary Masters degree would be for students to discuss Banga’s reading of PrairyErth in the light of Kathleen Jamie’s A Lone Enraptured Male, her iconic critical review of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. My aim in asking them to do this would be to substantiate for themselves Amitav Ghosh’s Amitav Ghosh’s insistence, in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, that we attend to the renewed awareness that: ”human beings were never alone… have always been surrounded by beings of all sorts”, beings that share “the capacities of will, thought and consciousness”. With this, he argues, comes a renewed sense of our uncanny relationship with the nonhuman. One that is particularly “resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to ‘Nature’ and that, in turn, confounds “the very idea of ‘Nature writing’ or ecological writing”. While we can read something of all this as being implicit in McLucas’ manifesto, we need to go back to PrairyErth to find an approach to deep mapping that is fully focused on the underlying dilemmas of our time. In this it anticipates, in a very different and ultimately practice-oriented register, what Intake to be the aim of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime

So, two questions. First, what has this to do with travelling in the time of COVID-19? Second, where, in all this, does the work of the poet Grace Wells fit in? I’ll try and answer the second question first. It may of course simply be that I had the good fortune, through my friend the Irish eco-artist Cathy Fitzgerald, to hear Grace Wells read two poems at an on-line Samain celebration Cathy organised this year. But I like to think there is more to it than that. 

After that memorable evening, I needed to buy a second-hand copy of Grace Wells’ Fur (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2015). (When it arrived I noticed that it was signed ‘For Beverley with Best Wishes, Grace Wells’. I have a number of second-hand books of poetry that have been signed by the author. I always find myself wondering what particular set of happenstances has led to them coming into my possession, speculation that suggests one answer to my first question). Towards the end of Fur there’s a poem called I Packed My Bag, which concludes with a sentiment the poet says she’s copied down: ‘Our single purpose is to magnify the light we share between us’.

I read this as another way of articulating Least Heat-Moon’s repeated exhortation to set aside the myths that underwrite our egological mentality; to acknowledge that we are constituted are constituted in and through our innumerable relationships – human and otherwise – our endless and unnameable  attachments  and connections to the pluriverse. Although I Packed My Baghappens, along with Winter, to be the poem that stays closest to me (as it will, maybe, to anyone living through this pandemic who has had to prepare for a period in hospital), there are plenty of others that articulate something of the same insight. Three of her section titles: ‘Animal Encounters’, ‘Being Human’, ‘Becoming Animal’, (in that order) may suggest why, particularly if read in the light of the Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s claim that ‘even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know’ that an saol eile (“the other life” – an Irish phrase reductively paraphrased in English as “the unconscious”) ’exists’. She adds that there is, embedded in traditional Irish culture – Wells, although born in London, has lived in Ireland since 1991 – an understanding that the flowing-together of everyday life and that “other life” ‘is the most natural thing in the world’.

So, the answer to the question as to what all this has this to do with travelling in the time of COVID-19 lies in what Least Heat-Moon calls ‘dreamtime’ or ‘dreaming’, the richness of which is suggested by a chapter I’ve already referred to: ‘Out of the Totem Hawk Lexicon’. To his question as to whether his encounter at a friend’s Ouija board ‘sound like self-deception, hallucination’ I would answer, following Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, “no”; that even West Kerry’s dogs know that this is just the flowing-together of everyday life and an saol eile.Here the means to travel becomes what Least Heat-Moon calls ‘a less conscious mind using an emblem to reach toward a vague awareness and push it to the surface where shallow reason can look it over’. Deep mapping? Maybe, although not perhaps in quite the sense Cliff McLucas’ manifesto implies. But certainly in the spirit of poets like Grace Wells and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and, I would suggest, certain Surrealist poets and artists. 

All of which is significant, given the parallels between the classic characterisation of Surrealism involving a sewing machine, umbrella and ironing board and Michael Shanks’ claim that deep mapping involves: ‘the forced juxtaposition of evidences that have no intrinsic connection’ relating to a process of ‘metamorphosis or decomposition’ intended to intended to produce ‘amalgams or connections … where there probably should be none’. This suggests to me the need to reconsider our whole understanding of those aspects of modern culture that have acknowledged, tacitly or explicitly, the flowing-together of everyday life and that ‘other life’. A reconsideration undertaken so that we can again learn to travel differently, and in ways that no lockdown can prevent.

Clifford McLucas: Ten Things I Can Say About These Deep Maps

First Deep maps will be big—the issue of resolution and detail is addressed by size.

Second Deep maps will be slow—they will naturally move at a speed of landform or weather.

Third Deep maps will be sumptuous – they will embrace a range of different media or registers in a sophisticated and multilayered orchestration.

Fourth Deep maps will only be achieved by the articulation of a variety of media – they will be genuinely multimedia, not as an aesthetic gesture or affectation, but as a practical necessity.

Fifth Deep maps will have at least three basic elements – a graphic work (large, horizontal or vertical), a time-based media component (film, video, performance), and a database or archival system that remains open and unfinished.

Sixth Deep maps will require the engagement of both the insider and outsider.

Seventh Deep maps will bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local.

Eighth Deep maps might only be possible and perhaps imaginable now – the digital processes at the heart of most modern media practices are allowing, for the first time, the easy combination of different orders of material – a new creative space.

Ninth Deep maps will not seek the authority and objectivity of conventional cartography. They will be politicized, passionate, and partisan. They will involve negotiation and contestation over who and what is represented and how. They will give rise to debate about the documentation and portrayal of people and places.

Tenth Deep maps will be unstable, fragile and temporary. They will be a conversation and not a statement.