Monthly Archives: September 2013

Rural matters – a meditation on sinkholes


These photographs are of two sink holes in County Durham. I’ve been keeping an eye on them and their peers over a number of years.  Sink holes appear in the news every so often, usually when a portion of a city in the USA drops into one, often taking houses, vehicles and/or people with it. Their physical presence reminds me very forcibly of the instability of all aspects of the land – and not only of what’s under my feet in places such as these – and so helps me not to take it’s stability granted.

Yesterday I spoke with Margaret Ames, who teaches full time at Aberystwyth University (see As usually happens when we meet – sadly all too infrequently – we discussed issues relating to Welsh culture and the rural uplands farming which still just sustains the taskscape in which Margaret lives, and that has been so important to my own work. Most people have internalized an urbanist mentality that either reflects Marx’s observation about ‘the idiocies of rural life’ or tends to think nostalgically of the rural in terms of picturesque landscape and rather static, backward-looking and parochial communities on the margins of contemporary society. Such attitudes are unfortunately dominant and ignore so much – the realities of agribusiness and its negative environmental and social impact, the playing out of tensions around national identity through the politics of the ‘heritage industry’, the increasing distopia of many indigenous working rural communities, the growing crisis of Britain’s smaller farms, and so on. Some of these attitudes are perpetuated by members of rural communities themselves – particular the landowning classes and urban escapees who might be said to be located, rather than working, rurally; but many are simply a reflection of ignorance and media stereotyping.


Margaret’s and my conversation was focused by a number of general issues that it seems worth articulating here. The first relates to what I take to be the most pressing educational issue of our time which, as anyone who reads these notes regularly will know, is the need to facilitate the shift from a disciplinary-based to an ecosophical conception of education; namely one that aims to provide a basis for ecosophical praxis. While the resistance to any such a shift – which requires a radical change in the realpolitik of Higher Education and the professions – is naturally massive, it is none the less a vital part of creating a genuinely sustainable future. Perhaps ironically, and this brings me to my second issue, working rural communities in countries like Wales – which still have a tradition of poetics – are far more likely to offer us initial models of what is necessary for ecosophical praxis to emerge in practice that any number of academic tomes on Guattari.

In Margaret’s home village, as in communities like that on the Isle of Mull, most people must exercise a wide range of different skills and understandings, both in order to earn a living and to sustain any kind of living culture. Community in such places is always fragile, cannot be taken as a given, and requires a good deal of effort by individuals and groups to sustain and constantly recreate it. To survive, let alone to thrive, an uplands farming community requires an engagement in the intermeshing of environmental, social and personal ecologies that, while very far from Guattari’s ecosophy in some respects, in others offers an important lived embodiment of the tensions and connectivities any genuine ecosophical praxis must engage with. While the urban academic theorist can take for granted that her monthly salary enables her to gather her basic physical and cultural sustenance on her way between home and work – whether from a supermarket or a multiplex or arts center – in rural communities these things usually require planning, a thoughtful allocation of resources and, very often, the necessity of social co-operation. In short they require skills that, as the unsustainability of our current consumerist culture starts to bite, will be increasingly necessary to us all.


A third related issue has to do with dwindling fossil fuel resources for long-distant transportation of basic necessities, land use, and the production of food. At present upland farming is increasingly threatened by a combination of factors – many of them related to a blending of economic and social policies that – in the name of a popularist pseudo-democracy – enables Government to believe itself entitled to ignore the needs of ‘marginal’ rural communities. However, as climate change continues to lead to rises in sea level, our whole approach to land use will need to change because there will simply be less and less of it – whether to live on or produce food. (Ironically, it is possible that global warming may allow grain to be grown on a small scale at higher altitudes than at present, as it did in the late Iron Age and Roman period in upland Britain). If, as seems inevitable, the UK will need to become both far more self-sufficient in terms of food production and, with many of its major city at close to sea level, need to relocate very substantive percentages of it population to higher ground, working rural communities in general and upland rural communities in particular, are likely become a contested but vital basis for the creation of a genuinely sustainable society. At present both the dominant social order and our increasingly embattled rural communities – facing such issues as the loss of post-offices, in many places a cornerstone of rural communities – lack the necessary envisioning necessary to catalyze the kind of ecosophical praxis necessary to address these issues. While artists – in the broadest sense – are beginning to undertake just such an envisioning they can only do so much on their own.

And it is at this point that an ecosophical approach to the arts and education as they apply to these issues is urgently needed.

Creating convivial places – towards another politics?


In these increasingly uncertain times I am more and more impressed by the way in which people I meet are managing to continue to make ‘convivial places’ that serve to grow or support forms of community and mutual support – ‘places’ that exist solely through the coming together in good faith of people engaged in creative action. This form of ‘making’ seems to me one basis for what we might call another kind of politics and some of the most valuable creative work we can do. Indeed, if some theorists are to be believed, it perhaps lies at the heart of the creative conversations that we undertake when we engage in the work (verb) of art.

Recently the most obvious example of this kind of work for me has been The Showroom Projects with whom Mel Shearsmith and I (representing PLaCE) worked on the Walking in the City project. ( – see my last post and Walking In The City). The three main people involved are Alice Tatton-Brown, Hannah Sullivan and Martha King, who describe themselves as ‘creative practitioners and producers’. Something of the spirit of this enterprise is suggested by the description of Alice Tatton-Brown’s role: “Alice is currently looking after finance and development at TPS, though like Martha and Hannah, she too can also be found cleaning the spaces, emptying bins and filling holes in the walls” ( Not to mention, at least in Martha’s case, taking on other low-paid work so as to help keep body and soul together). Alice is also soon to perform Ariel – part audio walk, part installation, and part performance – an intimate story told and retold in Exeter Central Library (19-26th October).

It might be argued that what I admire in these three women is simply indicative – a working in the kind of hybrid, ‘in-between’ psychosocial space that is occupied, willingly or unwillingly, undertaken by innumerable artists who have both to subsist and sustain their practice by multi-tasking, creatively and economically. While that may be true, it risks missing the particular outward-looking, enthusiastically engaged and intellectually curious quality of the ‘convivial place’ these three have managed to create at the Parlour Show Rooms. It is this creative conviviality, perhaps more than anything else, that we now need as a society and that Bristol City Council risks disabling when it dispossesses The Showrooms Projects later this year.

Notes towards a deep mapping of Bristol


PLaCE has just engaged with the wonderful Parlour Showrooms on the Walking in the City programme – something very much driven by Mel Shearsmith’s engagement and enthusiasm. As part of the four day event Sue Maude (above) and Sarah Rhys (with myself providing some backup and support) spent some time working on preliminary notes for a deep mapping of Bristol, using the old city and issues of waterways as two key focal points. The public response was wonderful and between us we had a great many interesting conversations with the public. (That Bristol City Council has failed to extend the Showrooms’ tenancy of the building on College Green beyond December shows, in the light of reports like Jocelyn Cunningham’s ‘Knitting Together Arts and Social Change” (RSA), just how unbelievably insular, short-sightened and reductive local government officials can become. I do wonder who made that decision, on what kind of ‘informed’ basis, and how those involved in the council’s arts policy where involved, given the massive level of support for the Showrooms work. That we will never get open answers to those questions tells us a great deal about how cities are run).


For me our mapping process started with a simple reversal – from the usual ‘You are here’ to the question: ‘Are you here”? we have begun to identify some of the historical and contemporary resonances and tensions that help to “make up” Bristol (see my comments re Bristol City Council above).


Are you here?

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this work has been the engagement by members of the public – a mix of young and old, of local people, new arrivals, and tourists. Their responses have ranged from that of a New Zealand archaeologist who lectured me on the inequalities by which the arts “get all the funding”, and then “rip off” archaeology, which is condemned for “just” being about”heritage” through to the woman who wrote the following for our mapping:


More on this as I digest the rich brain and heart food that the last four days have provided, but one of the pleasures has been the way in which working simply and as a team in the context of the Showrooms, which enabled us to appropriate very interesting related material.


More thoughts on ‘transgression’ at 300 meters plus above sea level


This waterfall is just over 300 metres above sea level on the Hopeburn stream that feeds into a large reservoir in Weardale, Co Durham. Walking here you quickly find evidence that the rock in falls over was once seabed.


This hard limestone is close to what is known locally as “Frosterly marble”, columns of which can be found in Durham cathedral.


Obviously I was delighted to find this on one of my “home patches’, with geological transgression on my mind as it is at present.

While we were walking in Co Durham the other morning my wife Natalie asked me how my project work with Antony Lyons was going. We then got into a conversation about language – the term ‘transgression’ in particular and related terms more generally. As our old friend the artist Simon Read often points out, the language around marine transgression is essentially military – we either ‘defend’ coastlines or we ‘retreat’ in the face of coastal erosion or flooding. However, this way of thinking seems increasingly unhelpful in terms of finding more creative approaches to the ecological issues we now face, given that man-made marine transgression is becoming a more and more serious problem in terms of the future.

What we need, I believe, is to start to think transversally, to shift our language use so that it is oriented to an attitude of cooperative adaptation and celebration. This might prepare us to make better use of what, for example, is beginning to emerge in terms of rethinking coastal management in the USA.

A recent article on natural forms of protection against the more extreme forms of storm damage in coastal areas points out that in the USA: “Coastal forests, coral reefs, sand dunes and wetlands are just a few of the natural habitats that protect two-thirds of the US coastline from hazards such as hurricane storm surges”. That is to say, a situation that can be seen as supporting plans to move beyond over-reliance on engineered solutions such as levees or seawalls. The survey to which the article refers to is designed to look at the cost-effectiveness of conservation-based protection such as wetland restoration and dune creation, along with other protective factors such as coral and oyster reefs, wetlands, dunes, seagrass beds and kelp forests (see This same shift may already have started in a small way in parts of the UK, where coastlines are managed by organizations such as the National Trust.

Anyway, my conversation with Natalie has got me pondering language and, for example, the link between ‘transgress’ and ‘ingress’ as relevant to our thinking about the geopolitics of climate change and to transgression in a geological sense. One online dictionary gives the following relevant definitions of ‘transgression’, of which the one around which our project is based is the third:

trans·gres·sion  (noun) – 1. A violation of a law, command, or duty: “The same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton). 2. The exceeding of due bounds or limits. 3. A relative rise in sea level resulting in deposition of marine strata over terrestrial strata.

But it seems to me that the second sense of transgression is also relevant to discussions we’ve been having about climate change, changes in sea level, and the need for adaptation. What Natalie was pointing out to me is that, although the concept of transgression appears to be very much rooted in religious thinking, when seen from a scientific perspective the results of climate change, which are too rapid to allow for adaptation, are also said to ‘transgress’ in so far as they exceed what might be regarded as ‘due bounds or limits’ – but only if we assume a world understood from a gradualist evolutionary perspective. These assumed limits are in reality unrelated to anything ‘natural’ – such as, for example, a tree’s tolerance of the saline content in ground water. They relate only to a particular human perception of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ time-scales and limits, given a particular theory of how nature should behave!

Which brings us to the related term: ‘ingess’.


in·gress  (noun) – also in·gres·sion: 1. A going in or entering – 2. Right or permission to enter. 3. A means or place of entering.

At the risk of appearing rather pedantic, it is possible to imagine starting to shift our psychological attitudes to marine transgression by, for example, talking not about either ‘defending’ coastlines or ‘retreating’ in the face of the sea’s threat to coastal erosion or flooding, but instead of accepting that, given what humans have done in terms of creating climate change, the sea will now require ingress – both as a ‘point of entry’ and as something those who have ownership of/authority for coastal management need to ‘permit’ in appropriate areas so as to avoid substantial problems in others. This kind of lateral thinking / speaking may be a small but useful start to thinking otherwise.


Antony tells me that this – about the size of a slightly squashed half football – is possibly the fossil remains of  a tabulate coral (or something similar!) This extinct coral almost always formed colonies of individual hexagonal cells defined by a calcite skeleton like a honeycomb. They lived entirely during the Paleozoic period and are characteristic of the shallow waters of the Silurian and Devonian periods. But as transgression occurred during the Devonian tabulate corals became less and less common. They finally became extinct in what is known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event. But even if it’s the fossil of a different coral, the point remains the same.

And here one is now, millions of years and 300 metres plus, sitting embedded in a stone sill in Co. Durham.

Cliff (Clifford) McLucas

I am delighted to discover that there is now a web site devoted to the work of Cliff MacLucas, whose “Ten Things I Know About These Deep Maps” has been a really important source of inspiration for the deep mapping work I’ve been involved in over the last fifteen odd years, along with the work of Mike Pearson.

The new web site, which grows in large part out of work done by Dr Rowan O’Neil, a Lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, at Aberystwyth University, can be found at: For those who are interested in hearing the man himself there is also the video at: