About Cop26

(Based on the official report of a debate in the House of Commons, March 10th, 2021).

I have just spent the best part of an afternoon reading through the transcript of this debate, picked up on because Darren Jones, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEISC), is the Member of Parliament for the constituency I and my family live in.

Like anybody even aware of how the Government of Boris “Da Piffle” Johnson (as he’s known in our household) conducts itself, I’m concerned about its approach to Cop26. Sadly, the situation is even worse than I had anticipated. While the UK has legislated for carbon net zero by 2050, allowing the Government to claim to be a world leader, there’s still no credible Government plan for how this will be delivered. Simultaneously, they appear to be planning to reduce air passenger duty on short flights within the UK,  and have already done a U-turned on the vital green homes grant initiative by withdrawing a billion pounds of funding. It’s also indicative that last week’s Budget strongly suggests that their much trumpeted “green industrial revolution” has been abandoned. Unsurprisingly, the BEISC has expressed concern about the Government’s lack of proper forward planning for COP26, doubting that the Prime Minister and his Government are fully behind the COP team and fearing its failure.

In short, it is absolutely clear that the Government has no co-ordinated plan and no cross-departmental agenda to achieve decarbonisation. Typically, while it expresses pious hopes that local authorities will play a major role in this, it ignores  the fact that it has already reduced more than two dozen councils nationally to the verge of bankruptcy. By stripped them of the funding needed to provide the necessary statutory services to their communities, it has effectively made it impossible for them to tackle climate change issues.

The weakness and incoherence of the Government’s domestic climate policy includes its £27 billion road building programme; its freezing of fuel duty for the 10th year; the probability that air passenger duty will be reduced; and the lack of a guarantee that measures such as the super deduction tax break will not be available for high-carbon investments. It is no wonder, then that the UK is way off course to meet both its fourth and fifth carbon budgets – even given that those budgets are based on an 80% emission reduction target by 2050, not net zero. Furthermore, the Government has failed on 17 of their 21 progress indicators and has met only two out of its thirty seven key policy milestones.

Cop26 is likely to fail because of the chaos and infighting in Whitehall that had bedevilled past attempts to get anything done, despite assurances that everything is now hunky-dory with work proceeding day and night to deliver. While the team responsible includes some people from environmental think-tanks and pressure groups among the career civil servants, it also includes the usual Tory apparatchiks; namely a former head of press at Tory HQ as policy adviser to the COP26 President and a former Tory special adviser as strategy director, along with a couple of bankers and a businessman with experience of emerging markets. Conspicuous by their absence are a strong body of environmental and climate change experts. Equally problematic is the absence of political leadership. Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee has said, in response to a question about whether sufficient progress was being made towards the net zero target, that: “We are clearly not. In almost every sector, we are failing… The Government are not on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budget”. He added that measures were “not taken quickly enough” and that the Government “have simply not done the radical things that need to be done.” 

The situation can be summarised by saying that the UK Government simply does not care enough about environmental issues to want to address them. It is so blinkered to the dire probable effects of changing climate that it stumbles blindly on, hoping that all goes well in the end; so tone-deaf to the arguments of climate activists that they cannot see the benefit of putting in the effort to get results. COP26 is on course to be a terrible wasted opportunity, and wasted simply because the Government is not willing to put in the effort. Anyone familiar with “da piffle” Johnson’s record as, say, Foreign Secretary, may recognise this as a recurring characteristic. 

All of which needs to be understood in the context of the fact that the world is currently on course to achieve only an emissions reduction of 1% by the end of this critical decade, not the 45% reduction required to keep alive the hope of limiting heating to 1.5°C.

I read all this in the context of recent observations by Jolyon Maugham, the Director of Good Law Project, who points out  that there is a clear move by Government under way to prevent people from expressing their dissatisfaction with it. For example, the Home Secretary has branded legitimate protesters as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and accused them of “hooliganism and thuggery”She and the government are now proposing legislation that will strictly limit the right to protest by giving the police new powers to restrict it. Little wonder, given the likely response to the Government’s failure to even begin to take the most important of our time seriously. 

Deep Adaptation: notes from an exchange with Cathy Fitzgerald

On the 28th of December,  2020, my friend the eco-artist, researcher and educator Cathy Fitzgerald emailed me to ask if I’d  come across the work of Professor Jem Bendell. He’d been on her radar for some time because of his argument about imminent societal collapse – Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.  Cathy felt, in my view probably rightly, that this was not something she should teach to course participants on the seven week Haumea Ecoliteracy courses she runs, since such online teaching is not an appropriate space for discussing this without psychosocial support. However, she also felt that it was an important paper that could not simply be ignored and asked me what I thought. I’d read Bendell’s first deep adaptation paper but not its follow-up, written with Katie Carr: Facilitation for Deep Adaptation: enabling loving conversations about our predicament, so I said I’d read both and get back to her.

What follows here is based on my various responses to Cathy’s request since then, intercut with some of her own reflections. 

The first thing to say is that, on the basis of what I know, I accept Bendell’s claim that climate-influenced “societal collapse” in most parts of the world in the coming decades is either “likely, inevitable or already unfolding”. (Since his original paper, he’s qualified this by adding that ‘near-term collapse’ is not inevitable). My personal view, however, is that this ‘collapse’ has indeed been unfolding, in different ways and for many years, in different parts of the world. What needs to be acknowledged is that better-off people in the Global North have not yet, or only recently, begun to acknowledge that this is already unfolding. (I’ll return to this later). 

In what follows I’ll take up Carr and Bendell’s concern: “to help reduce harm, save what we can, and create possibilities for the future while experiencing meaning and joy in the process” by suggesting that what they propose needs to be inflected differently. What follows are, however, very much my provisional thoughts. I stress this because I have sent Bendell some questions, which he’s kindly forwarded to Carr as being best placed to answer them. At the time of writing this I’ve not heard back from her, so I may very well need to qualify what I write here when (if) I do.

I think it may help if we start by seeing Bendell’s prediction about societal collapse as being “likely, inevitable or already unfolding” from a historical perspective. I suggest this because I think we need to generate a more nuanced understanding of what deep adaptation is likely to require if it’s to be helpful to different individuals and communities. Consequently I think it’s important to remember that wide-scale climate-related societal collapse has happened before, even in the West. Our culture has simply chosen to ignore this in favour of adopting the modernist belief in gradual but inevitable progress. (See, on this, Amitav Ghosh’s excellent book The Great Derangement)

Cathy is not sure about this thinking, given that previous examples have not involved mass ecocide. (This is debateable of course. Some might argue that the wholesale destruction of British wildlife that accompanied the enclosure of the Commons exactly anticipates, albeit on a smaller scale, our current situation of interwoven ecocide and social injustice). Be that as it may, I think it’s useful to remember that the Seventeenth Century was a catastrophic period of global crisis and social breakdown, one clearly linked to ‘climate change’ (see Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century). It took place during what’s often referred to as ‘The Little Ice Age’, extended over a period of more than one hundred years, and had world-wide consequences. (It’s estimated that it killed as much as one-third of the global human population). It’s important, I think, both to remember that humanity as a whole has faced this type of apocalyptic situation before, but equally to acknowledge that our current situation is very probably considerably more serious. Cathy’s view is, I think, that “looking to past ‘climate’ breakdown situations is too narrow”, since the crisis we face is the consequence of “an ecocidal misperception” that, as Bateson and Guattari realised, “has led to gross alienation of the dominant society’s place in the wider community of life. It is a spiritual crisis of misunderstanding life / consciousness / reality as an interwoven experience”. 

I don’t necessarily disagree. However, the aspect of Carr and Bendell’s approach that most troubles me, as someone who has spent a working lifetime in arts and humanities education, is their particular ‘therapeutic’ approach, one based on an amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism, has the appearance of a single ‘silver bullet’ that overlooks the need for other, alternative, possibilities. I should add that I have no quarrel with their approach in itself. However, I do wonder whether it isn’t oriented by its authors’ underlying intellectual ‘centre of gravity’. One that, in my view, means that their approach will be of help primarily to people who share that ‘centre of gravity’. People in different circumstances, from different backgrounds, and with different ‘centres of gravity’ (that is, who are primarily animated by a physical or emotional orientation), will need to come to deep adaptation via other routes.

Cathy’s own reflections on this are particularly helpful. She tells me that she and many of her network see Joanna Macy’s work, also influenced by Buddhism, as hugely important for deep adaptation: “because she so skillfully connects her early Calvinist worldview – and all the trouble that Christianity entails – with her review that Buddhist philosophy and practices for everyday living are more aligned with an ecological worldview of grounded, impermanent, interconnectedness and compassion”. However, I think what is important here is that Cathy, like me, understands that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deep adaptation if it is to be genuinely inclusive.

Significantly, alongside Macy she references Julian of Norwich, Matthew Fox, and Pope, Francis, alongside Sister Chan Khong’s simple but moving book Learning True Love,  an account of her deep innate desire to help the poor in Vietnam and development of more social focussed practices for Buddhists today – ‘engaged Buddhism’. In short, the clear implication for me is that deep adaptation requires acknowledgement of our living in a pluriverse, one in which there will always need to be multiple approaches to deep adaptation that speak in different ways to different people and communities.

It may also be helpful to look at recent periods of trauma in our own ‘backyard’ if we want to start to identify something of these other routes. I’ve just read Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s book Thin Places, an account of how she discovered a sense of self after being traumatised by growing up in Derry as the child of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, during what are euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. For myself, that book suggests an alternative, more heart-felt route into deep adaptation to that advocated by Bendell and Carr. I would describe her process of adaptation as made possible by something closer to a (secular or ‘pagan’?)  equivalent to the Hindu concept of bhakti, or to the nature mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi, than to Carr and Bendell’s amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism.

I want to stress that in writing this I am not about arguing for or against any particular route into deep adaptation. I simply want to suggest that people oriented differently will need to develop particular forms of deep adaptation via a variety of different approaches. Also that, importantly, this relates to a need to avoid forms of tacit exclusion that relate to, but cannot simply be reduced to, issues of class, race, gender, etc., as well as to the issue of ‘deconstructing’ power on which Carr and Bendell focus. 

Cathy and I may have a different sense of emphasis here, in that she thinks very firmly that: “we have to move toward understanding the ecological catastrophe as a systemic breakdown and that it will need systemic restoration”. A situation that will require the development of “a real fluency” or “ecoliteracy” that enables us all to understand that “environmental and social challenges are always entangled” Her concern is that we must move out of a mindset that can only “focus on just one symptom of our alienation from life, like that its ‘about’ climate change’, or ‘the pandemic’, or the ‘6th great mass species extinction’ event or ‘mass social injustices’.” She adds: “intersectionality here is so important. But this is hard, especially when ecoliteracy and the fact of thinking this way is new… even our Green politics is riven with camps ‘for social’ or ‘for environmental’ progress but not often working together”. The implication being, of course, that there may need to be an agreed, overarching understanding – a common level of ecoliteracy – if we are to grasp what needs to change. While I understand and respect this view, I also wonder whether the best way to achieve the necessary fundamental change of heart is to undertake it incrementally, by enabling the following of the different routes most appropriate to different individuals and communities?  

The issue of what is practical seems central here. Having discussed the practical, group-based elements of Carr and Bendell’s approach with someone better placed to assess their therapeutic value than me, I’m very happy to accept that these are a practical and effective way forward for the constituencies they address. But it also seems to me that there may be an unacknowledged bias (for want of a better word) towards certain types of individual and community here that, as someone involved in education, I want to keep in mind. The historian David Gange, in his The Frayed Atlantic Edge, draws attention to the means by which remote rural ways of life have survived, despite the increasingly absolute dominance of the urban mentalité. Survived in places that have already experienced, within recent historical times, societal collapse and loss of their previous way of life. (And for reasons intimately bound up with the causes of our current socio-environment crisis). As Gange’s account of the activities of Annie MacSween and others show, “enabling loving conversations about our predicament” might equally take place in more social, that’s to say more collectively-oriented, contexts than those implicit in Carr and Bendell’s professionally-oriented therapeutic concern of “safe and confidential settings” to enable people to talk about, for example, death and dying.    

I wrote earlier that, in my view, the “societal collapse’ that Bendell identifies has indeed been unfolding over many years, even in the Global North. This brings me to what I feel is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of beginning the process of deep adaptation.

If by ‘society’ we mean the complex, now global systems that ensure that there is food, shelter, education, energy, etc. to be had by the beneficiaries of the dominant ethos, along with the continued production of techno-scientific ‘advances’ to facilitate those systems, then the ‘society’ promulgated by the ethos often referred to as ‘the Global North’ has yet to collapse. If, however, we mean a civil society, a community of citizens linked by shared (if constantly and democratically debated) values and interests, and by collective, mutually sustaining, collective activity, then arguably that civil society has been collapsing for many years. Or, more accurately, it has been steadily eroded from within. By 1987, for example, Margaret Thatcher could announce to the British public that: “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”. That view is, of course, as operationally absurd, as fundamentally opposed to any form of deep adaptation, as it is inseparable from the mentalité of possessive individualism that has been a principle driver in generating our current eco-social crisis. However, it was and is an understanding that suits those who gain most from the ‘global society’ of consumer capitalism that thrives on the extractive ethos responsible for ever-increasing levels of ecocide and social injustice. We cannot and should not ignore this socio-political reality.

Why does acknowledging these different understandings matter? Because how we each respond, both intellectually and emotionally, to Bendell’s notion of ‘societal collapse’ will inflect, if not wholly determine, how we approach deep adaptation. Unless we keep this in mind, the phrase itself  risks becoming an increasingly empty catch-all, one that masks fundamental differences that can and are being experienced in different ways in different places. This needs to be understood and acknowledged if we are to have any hope of achieving the inclusivity vital to what Cathy refers to as an effective level of ecoliteracy. 

I cannot, and indeed should not, attempt any single, ‘conclusive’, statement that tries to summarise all this. That’s neither possible nor what is needed.  What’s necessary now, surely, is for us to be participants in an ongoing, heart-felt conversation that builds mutual understanding, respect for differences, and trust. One that’s based on a willingness to genuinely listen, learn and acknowledge that, as Ursula Le Guin reminds us, a sense of commonality – with both the human and the more-than-human in the polyverse – begins in a shared acknowledgement of pain. Building that sense of commonality is, I believe, the greatest task we face and, for myself, I take as both comfort and challenge Bruno Latour’s insistence, in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime that, today, ‘what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world’ (Italics mine).

‘Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies’ – available now for pre-order from Routledge.

This is the book that professor Mary Modeen and I have been working on for many years and which is due out the end of this year. It is now available for pre-order at a discount on both the paper edition (down to £84.00) and the ebook (down to £25.89) from:


The book explores a varied range of creative engagements with ecologies of place, using geopoetics, deep mapping and slow residency to propose broadly-based collaborations predicated on ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ as an alternative to ‘inter-‘ or ‘trans-‘ disciplinarily.  The book demonstrates the breadth of new creative approaches and attitudes that now challenge assumptions of the solitary genius and a culture of ‘possessive individualism’. Drawing upon a multiplicity of perspectives, the book builds on a variety of differing creative approaches, contrasting ways in which both visual art and the concept of the artist are shifting through engagement with ecologies of place. Through examples of specific established practices in the UK, Australia and USA, and other emergent practices from across the world, it provides the reader with a rich illustration of the ways in which ensemble creative undertakings are reactivating art’s relationship with place and transforming the role of the artist.

We think the book will be of interest to artists, art educators, environmental activists, cultural geographers, place-based philosophers, postgraduate students and to all those concerned with the revival of place as a locus of a new ecosophy through creative work in the twenty-first century.

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.

News of new publications

I have just received a copy of Walking Bodies: Papers, Provocations, Actions edited by Helen Billinghurst, Claire Hind and Phil Smith and published by Triarchy Press. This contains a chapter based on a paper I gave at the Walking’s new Movements conference in Plymouth 2019 and is called: Walking Away? From deep mapping to mutual accompaniment. I also see that Amazon UK is now taking advance orders for the new Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, edited by Cameron Cartiere and Leon Tan, which contains a chapter I have written on Ensemble Practices, located in the Ecology section. This takes as its examples the work of Luci Gorrel Barnes and Simon Read.

Routledge have also recently confirmed that Mary Modeen and my book, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place:Geopoetics,Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies, will be published in December.

‘Echoing Sister’ and other concerns.

In 1969-70 the painter and bibliophile R B Kitaj made a series of screenprints that reproduced the covers of books he had collected. He also wrote: “Some books have pictures, and some pictures have books” and, in a related statement:  

“I’ve written some short stories or prose-poems for some of my pictures. They have no life apart from the picture. They illustrate the picture the way pictures have always illustrated books in our lives”.

In my last years at school, and as a Foundation student and undergraduate, Kitaj’s work mattered a lot to me. Looking back now, I think I found his eclecticism, his preoccupation with literature and poetry, and his unashamed intellectualism both refreshing and liberating. Ultimately, they helped prepare the ground for my later interest in the complexities of deep mapping. Like Kitaj, I’m something of a bibliophile and I’ve always drawn on my reading to feed my visual work. Faced with the CORVID-19 lockdown, I made plans to make an artist’s book, an updated, and primarily visual, version of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year. But, as so often happens, my imaginative energies got hijacked by another unconscious urge, in this case to engage with the figure of Medb. This came about via the construction below, called Echoing Sister, made in response to a quotation from James Hillman, who writes: ‘Elusive, mercurial, the unconscious is not a place, not a state, but a dark ironic brother, an echoing sister, reminding’. 

Echoing Sister 2020

I first came across Medb, also called Maebh, Mebh or Maeve, in 2011. (The etymology of her name makes it mean, taken literally, ‘she who intoxicates’). In that year I visited Dublin for the first time and bought a copy of The Táin. I read it and then forgot all about Medb. She reappeared in the title of Eamon Colman’s haunting painting Meabh’s tree on the hill of pain. I was writing about his work at the time and discussed the painting with him at some length. Prompted by that and other conversations with Eamon, I started to read Irish contemporary poets and became increasingly preoccupied with the work of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, in part because her poems seemed to me to share an orientation with the paintings of Ken Kiff, which I writing about at the time). That preoccupation deepened. Later I bought Cary A. Shay’s Of Mermaids and Others: An Introduction to the Poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and, via the chapter Sexuality and the Myth of Sovereignty, came to her discussion of Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems concerning Medb, whose passionate concern with the dignity she should be afforded struck a powerful cord with the concerns of the Me Too movement. 

Dinnsheanchas 2020

I made a constructed painting that draws on my response to  Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems and essays  –Dinnsheanchas / An saol eile (“the other life”) – for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill – but, when I finally finished it, still felt instinctively that there was more to imagine around the figure of Medb. This, together with Shay’sdiscussion of the Medb poems, prompted me to hunt for a hard-to-find copy of Ní Dhomhnaill’s Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, translated by Michael Hartnett. There I found and read his translations of the cluster of Medb poems in that volume that begins with Medb Speaks. All this left me with the question: who (how) was Maebh before all the misogynistic bother about husbands, bulls and heroes that makes up The Táin? There is of course no answer to that, but staying with it resulted in my making Hearsay: the young Madb, which may or may not be finished at this time.

What all this leads me to is something that the artist and printmaker Garner Tullis said about Ken Kiff. ‘Ken is a poet without a tongue as a true painter should always be’. This squares with Ken’s preoccupation with Yves Bonnefoy, who John T. Norton quotes as saying there is “a fundamental unity to everything related to the making of images”. For some, before we are ‘poets’, ‘writers’ or ‘painters’, we are first and foremost makers of images. My respect for painters like Eamon Colman and Ken Kiff Kiff flows from the fact that they imaginatively evoke the flowing-together of everyday life and that “other life” which, as Ní Dhomhnaill puts it,‘even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know … exists’; and where constant movement ‘in and out of it … is the most natural thing in the world’. ‘Poets’, in Garner Tullis’ expanded sense, work precisely by attending, often over long periods of time, to that constant movement as it emerges through making an image. (A movement considered entirely normal in most cultures and times). I hope there may be something valuable to be learned from that. The images made by people like Ní Dhomhnaill and Kiff help us to keep open to the difficult realities ahead of us, realities that governments led by political fantasists like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are manifestly incapable of facing.  

Speculations on unlikely convergencies and affinities: Eileen Lawrence and Will Maclean.

I have been searching back over what is now a fifty year plus engagement with making images, looking for hints and clues as to what of real value I missed or undervalued.

This involves two distinct but ultimately related activities. One, prompted by the example of two painters I greatly admire, Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, is reacquainting myself with poetry. That is, re-reading what’s accumulated on my bookshelves since I was an art student at Leeds University. This includes, among others, work by Stevie Smith, Martha Kapos, Leland Bardwell, Penelope Shuttle, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Kathleen Jamie, Naomi Shihab Nye, Paula Meehan, and Anna Saunders, alongside Rilke, Yeats, Eliot, Saint-John Perse, Wallace Stevens, W.H Auden, Anthony Hecht, George Mackay Brown, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Don McKay, Charles Causley, Robin Robertson, and Octavio Paz. 

Why do this? In part because I am increasingly convinced that Gaston Bachelard is right when he states that: ‘the image cannot give matter to the concept; the concept, by giving stability to the image, would stifle its existence’. This has helped me explain to myself why I feel more imaginative affinity to the work of poets than visual artists for whom self-expression or some conceptual conceit is primary. In part simply because I can take a certain comfort from reading poetry in these difficult times. 

The other activity is to work back through past interests relating to the visual arts, disinterring and re-examining old influences and lines of enquiry, particularly those that animated some aspect of my earlier work. This has taken me back to two contemporary Scottish artists, Eileen Lawrence and Will Maclean. Their work has for many years been of constant interest, if sometimes only visible out on the periphery of current concerns. (Both artists exhibit with Art First in London, whose web site offers examples of their work). I am proud that their work was included in the exhibition Imagined Landscapes at the RWA Bristol in 2016, which I co-curated; just as I regret that my attempts to produce a book on Eileen Lawrence’s work came to nothing. Her work was for a time a direct influence on my own; so much so, however, that I had to set it aside or risk making poor variations on it. I still regard her Piercing the Black Dawn (1988) and Nightsong from Images of Paradise (1989), both painted using watercolour and gold leaf and each a monumental 180 x 260 cms and 170 x 255 cms respectively, as among the most powerfully affecting works produced in the UK in the 20thcentury. 

All of this is an extended introduction to pondering what is, in the last analysis, the implications of a simple enough speculation. 

I recently bought a second-hand copy of the catalogue Will Maclean: Collected Works 1970-2010. This includes the transcript of a conversation between Maclean and the distinguished Scottish painter and teacher Sandy Moffat. In the course of this Maclean notes that it was reading Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content and seeing R.B. Kitaj’s work that enabled him to work his way out of his own uneasy relationship to the then dominant cult of abstraction and attendant ‘problems of form’. While this experience almost exactly echoes a rite of passage in my own self-education, what interests me now is that Maclean does not refer what I have always taken to be the highly significant influence of Agnes Martin on his work. I should make it clear that I in part assumed that influence because Martin’s paintings were given their first UK showing in Edinburgh in 1974, at a time when Maclean was mixing with Edinburgh art students and reconfiguring his practice in ways that have remained consistent ever since. To be fair the conversation with Moffat, and indeed the catalogue as a whole, has as its principle focus the underlying continuities between Maclean’s work and the culture of the Gàidhealtachd. In that context, reference to Martin might appear out of place, although Maclean is happy enough to reference the work of Giorgio De Chirico, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Cornell and H C Westerman.    

I now realise that Maclean, unlike Eileen Lawrence, may not acknowledge the influence Martin’s work in that Edinburgh exhibition because no such influence was necessary. He was already subject to forces that they ultimately share in common. Namely an emotional inheritance infused with a profound sense of the value of stripped back means, of a work ethic grounded in simplicity and rigour, although one with a rich poetics derived from the Gaelic language. The inheritance that had helped characterize the lives and spiritual attitudes of their Calvinist ancestors in the Highlands and Isles. (Agnes Martin’s family originally came from the Isle of Skye). 

What I find instructive now is that Maclean should apparently have had no difficulty in squaring such inherited proclivities with the exotic object lessons proffered by Kataj’s cosmopolitan, colorful (in both senses) and eclectic images. Images that draw, for example, on his particular personal interest in Jewish culture, the byways of art history as reveled by Aby Warburg, or moments in nineteenth and early twentieth century leftist political and literary life. Just as Eileen Lawrence had no difficulty, so she told me, in squaring her admiration for Martin’s work with her enthusiasm for that of Joseph Beuys. Yet any obvious affinity with Beuys is entirely absence from  recent works such as Eagle Circle, Greylag Flying North and Owl Habitat (You can find these reproduced here. That is, absent until we remember Beuys’ underlying affinity with the processes of natural phenomena in places like Rannock Moor and his interest in the colour theories of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner.    

The comfort I take from reacquainting myself with this apparently unlikely mesh of affinities is neatly captured by Maclean when, having listed what he refers to as the ‘ingredients’ that have helped shape his work, he adds that: ‘the way they mix and the way they finally evolve is the great mystery of our trade’. To work at any depth as an artist requires, it seems to me, precisely to place one’s trust in the processes that constitute that ‘mystery’ and, having done so, listen to what they bring to us. After that, it’s all a question of finding the appropriate forms for what is waiting to emerge.            

Notes on a practice reconfigured


For some years now my practice has been gradually reconfigured, moved away from the conception of deep mapping that had evolved over the previous last twenty years. That conception was ultimately inseparable from walking as a way of engaging with the physicality of place, as a vital counterpoint to its multiplicity of invisible aspects. However, following a course of chemotherapy in 2013 after an operation for bowel cancer, I developed peripheral neuropathy. The resulting discomfort as far as my feet are concerned has been enough to severely restrict my desire to walk the kinds of distances and in the kinds of places previously central to my deep mapping work. 

Initially, my solution to this restriction was to make a number of constructed mixed-media pieces – such as Notitia Six Suburban Edge, 2016 (fig. 1) in the Notitia series – based on places I either already knew well or were in themselves small enough in scale to enable me to walk there and absorb something significant about them in a single day. Judith Tucker, in her chapter ‘Walking Backwards’ (in David Borthwick, Pippa Marland and Stenning’s edited collection: Walking, Landscape and Environment, 2020), has given a sympathetic account of how these small-scale ‘polyvocal’ works developed out of my attempts to arrive at a lyrical micro-mapping that both drew on my previous deep mapping work and tried to develop its impulses in another, more ‘painterly’, direction. In short, these works marked the start of a shift away from my deep mapping back towards my earlier practice as a painter, one that allowed me the freedom to play with what Tucker describes as “a constellation of viewpoints, montage, collage and bricolage” that “does not allow any fixed reading of the landscape that is referenced” (p. 137). 

However, while I wanted to continue to enjoy the playfulness with regard to evoking place in these works, particularly what Tucker sees as their “extraordinary range of materials and categories of sign (ibid.), I also found my concerns gradually shifting from a focus on place ‘as such’ towards various social, political and environmental issues associated with it. For example, those of opposition to religious authoritarianism, migration (both physical and in terms of identity), and the problematic nature of any essentialist politics of ‘the land’. Working with these topics in mind on various pieces – for example  At the Border (RIP Anna Campbell), 2018, (fig.2) The Migrants, 2019 (fig. 3), and The Lie of ‘The Land’; or: A refiguring of landscape in the Age of the Great Derangement (for Amitav Ghosh), 2019 – 2020 (fig. 4) has drawn me into a complex set of considerations related to both my growing engagement with issues raised by the work of Irish artists and poets, particularly the painter Eamon Colman, about whose work I’ve written and who encouraged me to read Irish poets, and the work of the poet and essayist Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. (Issues that, to a considerable extent, have also been raised through my recent collaboration with the Welsh artist Lindsey Colbourne). The purpose of this essay, then, is to give a post-hoc account of this fitfully uneven and ongoing shift so as to try to clearly identify for myself where I now find myself in relation to the trajectory taken by the work.   

Starting to let go: ‘Outliers’ and Irish connections

Inevitably, the reading and writing I’ve been doing over this time has had an impact on what I have been thinking about and doing in the studio. Perhaps the two most significant provocations in the last three years in this respect have been my reading the essays in Outliers and American Vanguard Art, the catalogue to an exhibition of that name instigated by the National gallery of Art, Washington, edited by Lynne Cooke and published by the University of Chicago Press, writing about the work of the painters Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, and reading the poems (in translation) and then the collected essays, of the Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. The catalogue essays caused me to reconsider the reasons for my having adopted deep mapping as a practice in the first place; Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s work, now bound up with writing on the work of Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, served as a powerful stimulus to reconsider my approach to imagery and to visual language. I will touch on each of these provocations in turn, since together they have led me to reconsider the whole trajectory of my practice since the mid-1980s. 

Of the essays in Lynne Cooke’s magisterial catalogue, her Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream, Darby English’s Modernism’s War on Terror and Suzanne Hudson’s Personal Voyages made the strongest impression on me. Cooke unpacks the institutional rigidity …”in the museum, as in the academy” that means that “reparative practices” [retrospective inclusion] “rarely contest the foundational structural hierarchies on which relationships between the margins and mainstream are built”. (p. 24)  English focuses on the same issue but in the context of criticism, reminding us of: 

“The often brutal character of modernist criticism is shown in its insistence on the primacy of external judges, which is another way to describe its tendency not to think of the makers as the primary seers and knowers of their work. No matter how sympathetic to artists, properly vanguard criticism displaces maker’s vision and knowledge in favour of its own rigorously cultivated awareness of how Art (i.e., the feverish machinations of autonomous aesthetic forces) operates in the work at hand”. (p.31)

Finally, and equally importantly, Hudson writes of the importance of considering: 

“the cosmos as a way of dissolving the ostensible distinction between individual subjective experience and the larger world. What might it mean to argue for the fundamental impossibility of being an ‘outsider’ relative to art making? It is to assert that each person, each maker, exists with no greater or lesser salience than another, as physical fact”. (p.118)   

 She continues: 

“As the present exhibition proposes in using the cosmos as an organizing theme of one concluding section, and as this essay upholds relative to the artists brought together under its mantle, world making is central. These artists are both part of a cosmos and they create cosmos.”

 While I have always had an interest in what, following Cooke, I now understand as ‘Outlier’ rather than ‘Outsider’ art, the primary effect of reading these essays was a sense of considerable relief, a final shaking off of residual anxieties and restraints internalised during my long and sometimes difficult sojourn in the world of university art education. Most fundamentally, perhaps, a questioning of the ultimately conceptual or intellectual basis of deep mapping, its intellectual bias. A relief that, in turn, would make clear to me some of the less positive reasons for my taking it up in 1999, which I do not intend to go into here.   

The effects of my engaging with the poetry and essays of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill are now inseparable from both my return to studying the work of Ken Kiff and my deepening relationship with various artists in Ireland. They are, in consequence, more difficult to summarise. Central, however, is my renewed sense of how, through the physical act of making works in all their visual “musicality”, it may be possible to imaginatively evoke the flowing-together of everyday life in all its multi-faceted variety and the complexity of our relationship to place-time and that “other life” which, as Ní Dhomhnaill notes in her essay: ‘Why I choose to Write in Irish, the Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’, ‘even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know … exists’; and where constant movement ‘in and out of it … is the most natural thing in the world’ (Selected Essays 2005 p. 19). I sense something of this psychic inclusiveness as distinguishing aspects of Irish culture from that of England. It is echoed, for example, in the work of the painter Eamon Colman who insists that: “the earth is a living being like you or I … it’s an organism that breaths and communicates.” (In conversation with Brian McAvera: ‘Between Landscape and Abstraction’ in Irish Arts Review Spring 2007 p. 67). It is typified, for example, by his Meabh’s tree on the hill of pain (2017) with its echoes of both the specificity of place directly experienced and the continuing resonance of mytho-historical Irish characters in shaping that culture’s sense of place or, in Irish, dinnsheanchas. To summarise: what both sets of provocation have led me to is a re-evaluation of my priorities, one that now leads me to an emphasis on a poetics of listening that I want increasingly to distinguish from the more programmatic, research-based approach to creative work I adopted at the turn of the century. 

I now see this shift as linked to a renewed interest in the importance of poetry to visual art, something Kiff understood only too well,  particularly of certain types of poetry. For example, in addition to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill I have been reading the Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who was brought up on that nation’s northeast coast where, as he has said, “history, legend and myth merged cohesively in the landscape.” Furthermore, Robertson’s  interest in the stories of Celtic and Classical myth, the vernacular ballads, and folklore align closely with my own as they fed into my deep mapping work. Perhaps most significant to me now, however, is his terse claim that ”writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect”.

Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9.


I’ve now reached a point where, having worked on a number of formally loosely related pieces following on from the Notitia series, I see them as having led me to a point from which I cannot find a way forward. These works include Flight/Paths: (Her bones…) , 2018 (fig. 5), a collaboration earlier this year with Lindsey Colbourne that produced a piece entitled  Côr-lan Siwan – of which title she writes that this phrase: ‘combines something of the sacred (Côr = sanctuary as well as choir, and Siwan [the Lady of Wales] in recognition of her as the connecting element’ – (fig. 6) and, most recently Dinnsheanchas / An saol eile (“the other life”) – for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, 2020 (fig. 7). The nature of the problem I face is implicit in what I have already written, namely that I have clung onto the programmatic, research-based approach carried over from my earlier deep mapping work which, while it fed reasonably productively into the works mentioned above, has increasingly come to feel stale and unproductive, a hindrance rather than a necessary support. In retrospect this began to become apparent in works like Wound, 2020 (fig. 8) and Seithenyn Morfa Borth/ Cors Fochno (for Erin Kavanagh), 2020 (fig. 9) For some weeks in late May and early June I was preoccupied with an upwelling of half visualised possibilities but found myself unable to take these into any specific work. This upwelling circled around a statement by James Hillman, as follows:

Elusive, mercurial, the unconscious is not a place, not a state, but a dark ironic brother, an echoing sister, reminding. (On Paranoia 1986 p. 41).

Fig. 10

In mid-June I decided to try and force the issue, starting work on a piece provisionally called Echoing Sister a construction that, in its engagement with unconscious material, reaches back to Double Mapping, 2017 (fig. 10), a work that tries to ‘map’ a recurrent childhood nightmare involving an encounter with a wolf the height of a man. In trying to crystalise a form for the new construction I turned to the work of two artists who make constructed work, Will Maclean and Mimmo Paladino, looking for a way to consolidate and develop the complex construction and imagery I had used in Corlan and Dinnsheanchas / An saol eile. Productive as reviewing their work has been, Echoing Sister now feels like a mis-step, an attempt to move things on formally without addressing the more fundamental issue of a necessary shift of attitude on my part if I am to work out of listening to, and then working in response to, an upwelling of unconscious material rather than constructing what I now see as a programmatic ‘safety net’ of researched material that starts to dictate what is, and is not, present in the work. 

This mis-step became clear when I found myself following a thread of feeling prompted by the name Maebh that had attached itself to an old photograph intended for a project begun in about 2010 and never realised. My first reaction, conditioned by my tendency to always begin by constructing a loose web of meanings through research, one that will then support the constructing of an image, was to ask a friend of Irish descent whether she knew of any material relating to Queen Maebh as a girl. My intention had, as so often before, been to gather the types of historical and vernacular material out of which a sense of place can be illuminated via the processes of deep mapping. But the image of Maebh (as the girl in the photograph has now become), resisted this attempt to imprison her within a scholarly framework of given meanings. What it/she requires, I now understand, is that I allow an imaginal matrix to slowly form, a container into which the additional material necessary to amplify. It appears that all that matters, at least for the present, is that I keep in mind that the name means  “the cause of great joy” or “she who intoxicates” and the description of the adult Medb as a “wolf queen”, an attribute which carries psychic resonances that have been with me since I was a child. 

While I wait for the material that I hope will become a work to start to crystallise around the Maebh photograph, I have been following my nose along apparently random threads of interest in the vast storehouse of images that is Pinterest. This had taken me, to give a few examples, to the extraordinary visual richness of  a book containing 99 pages of swatches or samples of silk, from Lyon and dated 1764, to the drawings of the brain made by Santiago Ramón y Cajal at the end of the 19th century, to posed photographs of heroic Soviet female snipers, and to wonderful examples of the motifs used in the craft of traditional book binding and decoration. At present, all I can do is sift through this material, listening out for whatever speaks to the image of Maebh in the hope that, like a caddisfly larvae, she will gather to her the material she needs to house herself as an image.