By Katy Robbins
This blog post is about how a small town in Somerset, England maintains a connection with local wildlife and landscape and whether through this knowledge and understanding there is the potential to heal the rift between humans and the natural world.
Image: View from Glastonbury Tor (photo author’s own).
Upon taking a MSc in Human Geography, I take upon myself a responsibility of writing the Earth and where and how humans are related to it. It’s now common and extremely necessary to hear how human action has altered the planet in a way that compromises and extinguishes many lives entangled within our web of action. It appears to me that we have forgotten to live with the Earth. Instead we have come to live in spite of it, burning what we need and taking when we do not intend to replace, leaving the world with a limited variation of life, other than human. But the planet is very much more than human. Cultural geographer Sarah Whatmore, questions whether we are capable of considering a more-than-human world. As she writes,
this return to the liveliness of the world shifts the register of the materiality from the indifferent stuff of a world ‘out there’, articulated through notions of ‘land’, ‘nature’ or ‘environment’, to the intimate fabric of corporeality that includes and redistributes the ‘in-here’ of human being. (Whatmore, 2006, p.602)
By this, Whatmore means by looking at the ties we have with the Earth and all that makes it including plants, insects, rocks, animals, we can see what makes us who we are and what we are made of. The world is made of connections and interweavings. The world and nature is not seen as a separate place ‘out there’, as Whatmore explains but as something we are a part of with other beings, or, the more-than-human world. To inspire new ways of seeing in a more-than-human world is an exciting endeavor within the field of human geography. There may be tales out there, that might stitch us together ‘in here’…
When we talk about ‘nature’ we talk about something which exists outside, we refer to something that is ‘wild’ as if humans are always the epitome of ‘tame’ and ‘civilized’. We forget that we are also part of nature. Alfred North Whitehead was an English philosopher who wrote about this divide we have created between ourselves and nature. He named it the bifurcation of nature, how we have theorised our world has separated our experience of nature, there are two perceptions, that of how we experience the world around us and that which we have analysed and borne a scientific knowledge of. As Whitehead describes our tendency is,
to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electron which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. (Whitehead, 1926, p.31)
Arguably, it is through this separation that we have rendered, perceiving our existence as being separate to our surroundings, that we have created the Anthropocene, that is the age of the human-made world, so called because we have altered the planet so significantly through our activity that we are the dominant influence on the Earth’s environment and the damage we have cause as a result will be there to see within the Earth. Much in the same way as archeologists excavate Bronze Age weapons and Paleolithic bones our descendants will unearth plastic. On finding ourselves in this Anthropocene we are discovering the impact of our creation in the same way that Dr. Frankenstein beheld his monster. On the subject of Shelley’s masterpiece, stories throughout history have been a quietly powerful tool for the osmosis of ideas and understandings within society. Can stories help us realise that we too are nature?
One of the things that used to happen as a result of living with the Earth, was that we told stories about our connection to the Earth and I don’t mean writing about trading routes or where we grow potatoes not that these matters aren’t necessary for analysis. What I describe are the stories we shared with the Earth, our connection with the elements, the wind, the birds, the leaves and flowers and what significance they had upon our lives. Such stories are shared within mythology.
Glastonbury is such a place that tells tales of an Earth where a tapestry of lives are spun together, that of the Sun, the Earth, the trees, ourselves and even dragons. I first visited Glastonbury when I was 18. My mum and I had stopped there pausing our tour of prospective universities, betwixt our route from Falmouth to Bath the small town caught my eye full of curiosity. With crystal shops, apothecaries and half a dozen bookshops stocked with mysterious, esoteric material it was like an alternate world ready to explore. Pouring through a witchcraft shop laden with magickal items, the keeper enquired to our plans. On explaining our tour of prospective universities the keeper responded, ‘So I see, you have an owl on your shoulder.’ The keeper’s language held ties with the ‘natural’ world, he appeared to have a magickal way of seeing. Of course, in folklore the owl is tied to wisdom and knowledge such is their ability to see in the darkness and to catch prey without being heard. In attending university, I hoped I would acquire knowledge to sustain me through a darkened world. If I did, indeed have an owl upon my shoulder, I thought I would be better for it. Leaving the shop, we ascended the Tor, a steep and exposed climb, the thrashing of the elements around me refreshing all my senses. In walking in place such as Glastonbury, you are forced to recognise the living world beyond (and within) yourself. Geographer John Wiley (2002), wrote about his ascent up the Glastonbury Tor comparing it to Francesco Petrach’s ascent of Mount Ventoux in France. In Petrach’s account the mountain was there to claim victory over, to celebrate the success of man dominating nature, the wild and beastly nature surmounted by the power and mind of man. On the contrary, Wiley sought to tell how the physical experience of ascending the Tor was very much about the relationship a being has with its environment, the two one and the same, without the hindrance of bifurcation. As Wiley describes, ‘There is no question of choosing between them; ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds may not coincide, but they are both necessarily interwoven elements of experience.’ (Ibid, p. 444)
Pilgrims have come to visit Glastonbury Tor over many hundreds of years. What is it that gives the place its liveliness? How is it a place where we are forced to see the connectiveness between things? What mysteries are hidden within the landscape of Avalon? Avalon or the Isle of Apples being the site of Authurian legend is an alternative name for Glastonbury and in writing this I remember childhood tales of a Lady of the Lake. Local listings paper, The Oracle, announces tree walks, healing waters, mythical journey tours and starbeing practitioners. Listings of connections in a more-than-human world. Avalon brings to my mind the Aboriginal idea of shimmer which anthropologist, Deborah Bird Rose tells us about in the anthology, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017). The shimmer, or brilliance as spoken about by the Aboriginals of the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory brings us ‘into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world.’ (Ibid, G53) Bird Rose writes, ‘the Anthropocene shows us the need for radically reworked forms of attention to what marks the human species as different.’ (Ibid, G55) Perhaps it gives us the opportunity to embrace brilliance, the kind of brilliance that can be embraced through telling stories of our experiences in the more-than-human world, that is the one and only de-bifurcated Earth.
Bird Rose, Deborah, (2017) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
The Oracle (May 2019) www.glastonburyoracle.co.uk
Whatmore, Sarah, (2006) Materialist Returns: Practicing Cultural Geography in and for a more-than-human world, Cultural Geographies, 13: 600-609
Whitehead, Alfred North, (1926) The Concept of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wylie, John, (2002) An Essay on ascending Glastonbury Tor, Geoforum 33, 441-454