An Ecobardic Manifesto

a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis

 

by Fire Springs*

 

 

[First published by Awen Publications 2008. This edition 2015]

 

 

The world is in crisis. It’s been in crisis before. Individual regions have suffered environmental collapse. The planet has undergone global ecological crises in the deep geological past. But in our time we’ve become aware that for the first time during the history of civilisation the world faces such a global ecological crisis – one caused not by asteroid impact or the slow cycles of plate tectonics or celestial oscillation, but by the accelerating exploitation of the earth’s resources by an ever growing human population. In such a crisis what place is there for the arts?

 

We believe it’s time for the arts to respond whole-heartedly to the ecological challenges facing our planet. In place of the commodification of alienation, we need to celebrate connection; in place of intensifying polarisation between entrenched dogmatisms, we need to foster respect for otherness and diversity; in place of self-interested denial, we need to get people engaged with ecological reality.

 

How can creative artists do this? As a start, we propose, through the application of five ‘ecobardic’ principles:

 

(1) connecting with one’s own roots in time and place while celebrating the diversity of other cultures and traditions;

(2) daring to discern and critique in order to provide cultural leadership;

(3) respecting and dynamically engaging with one’s audience as a creative partner;

(4) cultivating the appreciation of beauty through well-wrought craft;

(5) re-enchanting nature and existence as filled with significance.

 

This Ecobardic Manifesto is, firstly, a mission statement for ourselves as a group of performing artists and writers, and for our publisher. But it’s much more than that. It aims to draw attention to groundbreaking ‘ecobardic’ work that many other artists have already done. And, by making our artistic intention conscious and public, we hope to provoke and inspire yet others. From little acorns, mighty oaks may grow.

 

Where are we now?

 

It is time to listen to the speech of poisoned dolphins, the cries of the stratosphere, the howls of the deforested earth, the caterwauling of dry winds over the encroaching deserts, the screams of people without hope and without food, to the silences of strangled nations, to the passionate dreams of difficult artists, and to the age-old warnings that have always lurked in the oral fables of storytellers and shamans.  Ben Okri1

 

As we come under pressure to tighten our belts, to minimise our environmental footprint – moral and economic pressure to start with, but in future perhaps more coercive pressure as governments assume more drastic powers – the utilitarian questions begin to be asked: How can you justify felling trees to print your book? Or burning fuel to undertake research? Or wasting any resources, even your time, doing something that makes no tangible contribution to people’s physical survival? Already the funding streams that support the arts – grants, residencies, extramural education – are draining away. The same puritan materialism, whether capitalist or socialist, that’s propelled our rape of the earth’s resources would also instruct us we shouldn’t waste what we have left on activities it regards as ultimately dispensable rather than as essential to the fullness of human existence.

 

The postmodern phase in the history of the arts has run its course. It was a product of a particular time in history: a time afflicted by nationalist wars and genocides pursued using the technological fruits of modernity. Postmodernism sought to inculcate respect for the ethnic, national, or gender other and humility about what we think we know. An advance in thought that we must cling to, for hatred of the other remains at large in the world and is readily exacerbated by the stress and strain of ecological crisis – as we see in Africa, where the crisis is most advanced. Yet postmodernism has run the arts into a cul-de-sac. On one side of the street is tricky conceptual work that makes its ironic point, and makes it again, and few people really understand or care. On the other side are the slums of commodification, where the calculus of corporate profit margins drives popular culture ever more facile, bland, and predictable in pursuit of the surest possible return on investment. And straight ahead anomic cleverness and commercialised sensation meet in the dead end of pickled sharks and hyperreal cinematic violence.2 Richard Hamilton’s 1957 definition of pop art warned us what was in store: ‘Popular (designed for mass audience)/Transient (short-term solution)/Expendable (easily forgotten)/Low cost/Mass produced/Young (aimed at youth)/Witty/ Sexy/Gimmicky/Glamorous/Big Business.’3

 

It’s time for a new phase in the evolution of the arts. Time for the arts to pull their weight and make a more purposeful contribution to the challenges of our day and at the same time to recover their integrity as art – to ‘re-enchant’ our lives with meaning, as Suzi Gablik puts it.4 The work is already underway; you can trace the ancestry of this new movement in the arts back through the centuries. Thus far the movement is piecemeal and marginalised, not yet recognised as a movement, not yet named. Each new phase in cultural history coexists for a time with the previous one. The one waxes as the other wanes. The coexistence of the new approach alongside the old can be seen even within the oeuvre of individual artists.

 

But postmodernism attempts to preclude its own replacement. The very name, with its ‘post-’ prefix, implies that what it signifies will endure eternally beyond the end of modernism. Postmodern theory tells us we can no longer believe in any grand narrative, or adhere to any manifesto, that the real no longer exists, only the simulation. In the era of ‘post-’ (postmodern, post-industrial, postcolonial, post-Christian, post-Marxist), says Eric Hobsbawm, all we once thought normative was swept away and our times became defined by what had been left behind – most significantly the era since humankind’s beginning in which most of the world’s people lived directly off the land and sea – and no one knew what was going to happen next.5 Allusions to ‘post-postmodernism’ betray a startling lack of linguistic daring to envision any creative path forward. One fears to declare any specific commitment lest it be judged an imperialist imposition of some grand narrative on others who see things differently. But of course postmodernism is itself a grand narrative – one that locks the arts in an aesthetic of neurotic irony by which we can critique the abuse of power but are left impotent to do anything to transform the pressing problems we face.

 

The thing one can build on here, though, is postmodernism’s spirit of respect for the other, compassion for their suffering, attentiveness to their voices. Respect that we ought now extend to the natural world, its places and creatures, as well as to the people who’ve gone before us and those who’ve yet to be born.

 

For the real – in nature and past events – has power to bite back. Ask anyone who’s lost their family or their livelihood to flood, drought, or a war fought for diminishing resources. The grand narrative that’s exploding through the postmodernist world of illusions – including the shadow play of stock-market trading – is the grand narrative of ecological crisis. ‘We are there,’ says Cheryll Glotfelty. ‘Either we change our ways or we face global catastrophe, destroying much beauty and exterminating countless fellow species in our headlong race to apocalypse.’6 Let us be clear: this is not just about carbon-linked climate change, but about the whole gamut of human impact on the earth. Ecological reality is incredibly complex. Our attempts to understand the ecosystem’s intricate web of relationships will seem – if civilisation survives – as fumbling to future scientists as the Presocratics’ understanding of matter does to modern chemists. Yet the ecosystem is there, it’s under stress, and insistently, painfully, through flood, storm, drought, epidemic, famine, fire, and economic crash, it demands we take notice. So long as the arts are immobilised in postmodern nihilism, they are by default complicit with the ongoing demolition of the ecosystem under the leadership of global capitalism fighting tooth and nail to continue business as usual. The challenge is to engage creatively with ecological reality, but with humility about what we think we know – including our understanding of ecological crisis – listening to others, and resisting any slide into green totalitarianism that would imperil the creative spirit of art.

 

And so a manifesto …

 

We here declare the need for – and recognise the fragmentary existence already of – a movement in the arts which is characterised by its responsiveness to present historical circumstances: the global ecological crisis; the overwhelming colonisation of culture by capitalist commodification; the exhaustion of postmodernism as a source of creativity; the strain and opportunity of unprecedented interpenetration of cultures from different parts of the globe; the intensifying polarisation between religious fundamentalism and secular materialism at the expense of more nuanced perspectives; and the escalation of international politics towards the violent pursuit of self-interest at a time when the ecological crisis demands whole-hearted international cooperation. In place of the media’s commodification of alienation, the gadgets and self-obsession that incline us to be the socially detached cyborgs that industrialised workplaces and the consumer market would prefer, we need art that elicits compassion towards suffering and a sense of connection with other people, other creatures, and the ecosystem as a whole; that cultivates a sense of possibility and responsibility in the time and place where we are; that engenders peace, healing, wisdom, beauty.

 

We present this manifesto in expectation that whatever seems radical now will, if it takes root, eventually become stale and need replacing by something else to renew once again the arts’ purpose and relevance. We mean to offer not rules that constrain, but principles to provoke and inspire, to be placed in contemporary culture like seeds in the soil, or grit in an oyster. We say ‘An Ecobardic Manifesto’ because what we write here – in sand, not on tablets of stones – is but the view of one group of artists at one moment in history. Wind will blow upon the sand, the ecological crisis will develop in ways not yet foreseen, and the arts will have to evolve in response – just as a performing artist must respond to an audience’s shifting moods.

 

This manifesto is, first of all, a mission statement for ourselves. We begin not by trying to change the world but by trying to make conscious to ourselves the intention of our art. Secondly, more importantly, we wish to indicate the collective significance of the considerable vanguard of ‘ecobardic’ work that diverse artists have already accomplished. Thirdly, we raise a cry for more work of this kind, art that has integrity as art and at the same time responds to the challenges of our day; we look for the streams from diverse springs to converge into a great river.

 

Our own artistic roots, as a group, are in the bardic arts (performed poetry, storytelling, song) – and individually in writing, musicianship, painting, and education, publishing, archaeology, and art history – and also in British tradition and the British landscape, both of which have been profoundly impacted upon by industrialisation, secularisation, and pop commodification. But we take inspiration from other art forms and other countries, and hope that some of what we have to say will be applicable to the arts as a whole and beyond British shores.

 

Some of our views restate certain aims of the Romantics two centuries ago. Early in the industrial revolution Blake and his successors anticipated what might come to pass if the logic of the mechanised factory were ruthlessly imposed on land, society, and soul. We in the early twenty-first century live in a world that is to some extent the fulfilment of their fears. But the scale of ecological destruction now taking place would have been difficult to imagine two centuries ago. We are witness to species extinctions, habitat loss, and likely climate change on a scale not seen since the end of the end of the last ice age ten thousand years ago. We face the possibility that the modern civilisation that has consolidated over many centuries may crumble into a barbaric struggle for survival. Even if we remain romantics at heart, the context to which our art must respond has changed.

 

Why ‘ecobardic’?

 

The name of the artistic movement that will succeed postmodernism matters less than that the art itself is produced, acknowledged, and reaches the public. But recognition of a movement requires a name of some sort. We call this manifesto ‘ecobardic’ as descriptive of our own artistic outlook, understanding that this term may not seem acceptable to all those whose work we regard as part of the same movement. We define ‘ecobardic’ as ‘an evolving artistic approach that recognises the centrality, in our time, of the relationship between humankind and the global ecosystem and harnesses certain qualities of ancient and modern bardic art’.7 The ‘eco-’ prefix aligns this aesthetic with the wider green movement, many of whose strands are denominated by the same prefix – ecopoetics, ecosophy, ecopsychology, ecocriticism, ecofeminism – deriving from Greek ‘oikos’ (‘abode’), which in being the root of both ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’ reminds us that economics is part of ecology: it’s the way that humans dwell on the earth, as one of the many interconnected components of the ecosystem.

 

Others have, in various ways, already pointed in the same direction as this manifesto. We embrace as ecobardic Terry Gifford’s marvellous distillation of what he (doffing his cap to the tyranny of ‘post-’) calls ‘post-pastoral’: awe before nature; recognition of nature’s creative and destructive cycles; understanding our own inner nature in relation to nature; the interchangeability of culture and nature; conscience towards nature; and the connection between relationship with the earth and relationships between people.8 Jonathan Bate’s ‘ecopoetics’ expresses how poetry – and by implication other art forms – can evoke an experience of ‘being gathered into oneness with the surrounding environment’.9 An effect to be sought in the particular context of a sensitive individual experiencing a work of art in solitude. The ecobardic encompasses not only the subtlety of Bates’s ecopoetics but also, at times, the direct challenge of polemic, and engages people not only as individuals but also – in public performance – collectively and even in the physical presence of ecology.10

 

In declaring the ecological crisis the spur to produce ecobardic art, we do not mean to imply that all ecobardic art should be explicitly about that crisis. The ecobardic also celebrates and scrutinises the natural world and cultivates a love for and sense of connection with landscapes and living creatures. It promotes ecologically sustainable ways of living. It promotes peace and understanding among people and nations, and social justice that is at the same time environmental justice and preserves a place for wildness in the world. It honours the sensuality of the body, the flourishing of the psyche, and the limitless possibilities of the imagination.

 

The term ‘bardic’ can be used in a loose sense to refer to the bardic arts – of the spoken, or sung, word. More strictly, it refers to a venerable tradition in Celtic lands of professional lore-masters and performing artists – and, by extension, to equivalent figures in other countries. The formal role of bard has been revived in modern times by the Gorsedd of Bards, in Wales, and by the ramifying Druidic movement. We use the term ‘ecobardic’ to have wide applicability beyond these particular milieux – which to many may seem esoteric – and yet to partake of certain qualities of the bardic tradition that speak to the arts’ present quandary. In what follows we deploy these qualities as a series of entry points by which to chart aspects of our ecobardic vision for the arts.

 

A sense of time and place

 

The ancient bard was a storehouse of memory about the past of the land in which he lived. The ecological crisis begs the need for art that mediates knowledge of the past to inform the decisions we make today. We need to understand the chains of connection through history, how the present is consequence of the past, so the lessons of the past may be borne in mind and we may avoid the tragic farce that ensues when history repeats itself in ignorance of the past. We need to be conscious how our choices today will determine the circumstances that future generations must face. Ecobardic art, therefore, engages with these dynamics between past, present, and future. Like the Roman god Janus, the double-faced threshold guardian of gateways and beginnings, the artist stands fully present to the present moment in history and at the same time holds one face towards the past and one face towards the future.

 

The ecological crisis also confronts us with the physical reality of place: the place where ‘I’ live, flooded two metres deep by the summer rains because carbon emissions have changed the weather, because farmers have ploughed the hill slopes for subsidised crops so the water runs straight off them, because we’ve paved so much of the land that water can’t soak into the ground; the place where ‘you’ live, where wildfires have destroyed woods and village alike and there’s no water in the taps, because carbon emissions have changed the weather, because farmers have pumped so much water from the ground that the rivers now run dry, because developers want the land cleared to build new tourist accommodation. Place where people actually live. Place that may be lovely and buzzing with biology and culture. Place that may be so ugly and unhealthy that it harms the body and soul.

 

Ecobardic art helps people to triangulate the trajectory of their lives in space and time. To know where they’ve come from. To know where they are. To know where they’re going. To understand their relationship with the land; to know their way around it and at the same time how to soften their footprint upon it. Place comes together with time in the layers of history and tradition that have accreted upon the landscape. Ecobardic art celebrates tradition, our roots in place and past – but it has no truck with ethnic fascism and hermetically sealed national traditions. Your home is the place where you dwell, whatever the pathway that brought you there. Its traditions are yours to respect and to share. The ecobardic celebrates the diversity of cultures and traditions just as it celebrates cross-fertilisation and miscegenation between them, the strands of connection woven between cultures by the transmission of stories and images and by those facets of human existence – birth, joy, suffering, death – which all people share. There need be no contradiction between connecting with your own roots and at the same time with the glorious diversity of that which is other.

 

Cultural leadership

 

One role of the bard was the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what needed to be spoken. Sometimes the bard deployed acerbic satire that even kings feared. One characteristic of the present age is the enormous proliferation of information, most of it trivial, ephemeral, irrelevant to what is most important in any particular person’s life or indeed to the effective functioning of society and ecosystem. Such information overload works like a smokescreen, shielding the interests of the rich and powerful and the dysfunction of organisations, to impede people from getting to grips with whatever really needs to be addressed. People starved of meaningfulness, junk-fed on reality TV and tribute bands, overwhelmed with trivia, are easier to control. Media, advertising, shops, banks, utilities, employers, and government bombard us with information that demands we make decisions all the time about things that don’t really matter. One function of ecobardic art is, to the best of the artist’s knowledge, to frame information for the public: to reveal perspectives that have become obscured; to distinguish the significant from the trivial; to clarify complex phenomena to facilitate understanding; and, yes, to critique the abuse of power and puncture the rhetoric of self-interest.

 

Who is anyone, says the postmodernist, to make judgements about what is of value or what is true? We suggest it’s part of the artist’s vocation, with humility, integrity, honesty, to make such judgements, not claiming absolute authority, not claiming that one’s own view must be superior to the next person’s, but because there’s a need for someone to do this, someone whose voice is free from corporate control and the obsession with the bottom line, someone who’s cultivated as part of their craft a facility for discernment. And there’s ultimately an ecological dimension to such judgements of significance that grind so audaciously against the postmodernist neurosis that anything is of as much value as anything else: Tolkien dares opine that an oak tree and the clouds in the sky are to his frame of mind more ‘real’ than a streetlamp and the roof of a railway station;11 D. H. Lawrence exhorts us to distinguish between the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’.12 The ecobardic aim is to facilitate people’s access to the universal, to help them build bridges between the ordinary and the significant, so that they be empowered to make meaningful judgements for themselves.

 

But who, these days, is free from the tyranny of the bottom line? Surely art is justified only by its success in the marketplace? This is the lie perpetuated by market-economic dogma in our time. To the extent that an artist compromises their creative decisions for purely commercial reasons, they compromise their vocation as an artist. Much of the world’s great art never brought its maker commercial success. Think of Blake, Dickinson, Kafka, Moreau. The contemporary commodification of the arts tends to inhibit artistic integrity and to coopt the artist in an industrial machine mass-producing products whose value is defined by the profit that can reliably be made from selling them to mass markets blinded by the barrage of marketing to the products’ true worth on any other terms. Corporate capitalism deploys language and image in ways that play with people’s dreams, suggest immense utopian possibilities, but are in fact designed to make people buy a product so that capital may keep growing. In contradiction to the myth of freedom so loudly trumpeted by capitalism, the commodification of the arts works to undermine the free public exchange of ideas, and conditions people’s thoughts and speech to conform to corporate capitalism’s needs for compliant worker-consumers, people who will not press for radical social change,13 people trapped in the condition Blake called ‘Ulro’, for whom ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is … only a Green thing that stands in the way’.14 The ecobardic aesthetic understands the work of art not merely as a product to be bought and sold (though it may be that), but also, to use Lewis Hyde’s term, as a ‘gift’ – that may emancipate people’s spirits, nourish their lives with meaning, cultivate their intelligence and imagination, and inspire social change.

 

The more we allow … commodity art to define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society. The true commerce of art is gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of gift exchange … to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world – an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.15

 

Honouring one’s audience

 

The art we need in an age of ecological crisis should be fundamentally relational rather than self-expressive, argues Gablik, because of the heightened need to nurture respectful connectedness among people and with nature.16 In the bardic arts the relationship with the audience has always been fundamental: when you stand alone in front of a live audience what matters before anything else is that you successfully engage their attention; you can read in their faces the impact of what you’re saying; and the response of their own imagination plays a vital part in completing the creative experience. But concern for the impact of one’s work on the audience, and trust in the audience to respond imaginatively, is also applicable to forms, like literature, painting, and film, where the artist doesn’t face the audience directly. No matter how high-minded the work, how great the artist’s integrity, if the work fails to elicit a genuine engagement with some audience, then it’s artistically deficient. There’s a tension to be held between making art accessible to more than a privileged elite, and resisting the current trend to infantilise the audience by dumbing the work down to reach the largest possible market.

 

Confrontation with the audience in live performance heightens your awareness of your responsibility for the audience’s psychic well-being. It may be the deliberate intention of some ecobardic art to shock people awake to peril, injustice, and the need for change. But in the meantime people still have lives to try to live with joy and hope. The constricting awareness of destructive trends deeply embedded in society and in humankind’s relationship with nature, which the individual can feel powerless to do anything about, needs to be balanced by art expressing the possibility of a creative agency equal to the challenge – a well-spring, a seed waiting to germinate, a dormant volcano, a sleeping giant – something inherent to the human condition that desires to burst out, to be renewed, to connect with others. The bardic tradition gives the name ‘awen’ to the spirit of inspiration perceived to flow through nature and propel the poet’s creativity. We may take hope, like Ted Hughes, from the fact that the same period that has confronted us with global ecological crisis has produced popular fascination with the world’s mythology and wildlife, new notions of the earth as sacred, and the ongoing liberation of women.17

 

It’s another tricky tension to hold – between provocation and consolation – which bespeaks art’s ancient ritual function. Just as in the mythic pattern elucidated by Joseph Campbell18 the hero returns from the trauma of adventure to his everyday world, transformed by the adventure so that his world may in turn be transformed, so the storyteller brings the audience back from a transformative experience in their imagination to get on with their lives in their everyday world, which may then be transformed in consequence.

 

Well-wrought craft

 

The ancient bards of the British Isles underwent an extremely rigorous twelve-year training programme.19 In surviving bardic traditions in parts of Asia, training begins in childhood. The ecobardic approach aspires to match commitment of purpose with excellence of craftsmanship, and respects the artistic traditions that have developed down the centuries – in order to learn from and build on that which remains worthy of respect in our predecessors’ insight and craft. In this, it challenges capitalism’s mercantilist propaganda that only the novel and innovative is progressive and creative,20 and Gablik’s jettisoning of traditional aesthetics in her call for socially responsible art.21 The ecobardic seeks to cultivate the appreciation of beauty. From an ecopsychological perspective the aesthetic condition of the environment – not merely its ecological and social functionality – is vital to human well-being. Rather than dismiss aesthetic discrimination as the privilege of an elite, we should aim to widen the public’s range of sensibility. How can we hope to work towards a better world, a world in which there’s greater harmony among people and between people and the environment, unless we expand our consciousness of beauty in all its forms?

 

For the beauty to be found in art mirrors the beauty of the world around us, not only in physical form but in the relationships between things. The work of ecological restoration may in itself be seen as an ecobardic art, in which artistry works alongside science and nature’s own agency. Such work cries out for a developing aesthetics of nature, building beyond earlier notions of the picturesque and sublime and informed by science’s developing understanding of the biosphere’s vast diversity, complexity, and unpredictability. Richard Mabey’s idiosyncratic study of beech trees illustrates how, for example, literature and painting can help cultivate this kind of aesthetics.22

 

The green ethic against profligate waste is in itself an argument to pursue artistic excellence. If resources are limited, then any work to be committed to large-scale reproduction should be worthwhile and well crafted to justify the consumption of resources – including the consumption of the audience’s time. There’s a synergy here between artistic excellence and the artist’s function of framing information.

 

Yet creativity is the birthright of everyone, not just a select cadre of professional artists. Starkly at odds with the prevailing industrial model of work is Ruskin’s ideal, reiterated more recently by Matthew Fox, that every kind of work should be practised in a way that permits one to exercise creative skill.23 Emphasising the relational dimension of art may lead us to acknowledge activities such as therapy, massage, ritual, teaching, and even homemaking as akin to art. To nurture other people’s creative skills is an extension of our art; it’s part of the way we pass on the gifts we’ve received and take our place in a tradition’s evolution through time. Just as humankind must transcend its powerful biological drives if civilisation is to flourish and endure, so the ecobardic artist aims to transcend the perception of fellow artists as competitors in a world of zero-sum opportunity. Let us draw no exclusive line of accreditation between art and non-art, between professional and amateur. Let’s empower others to achieve excellence in their own creative endeavour and to share their work with an audience appropriate to its level of accomplishment. All of which is to recognise there’s an umbilical cord between the way we live and the art we make.

 

Re-enchantment

 

The bard’s traditional repertoire bespeaks a world enchanted by sacred refuges, portals to other worlds, sentient beasts and trees, and supernatural beings like fairies and gods. The rise to pre-eminence of a materialist perception of the world has swept away people’s sense of nature as enchanted or spirit filled – and therefore as possessing any significance beyond economic utility. The perception of the earth, its creatures, and to some extent its people as merely material has facilitated their ruthless exploitation under both capitalist and communist rubrics. Ecobardic art doesn’t merely endorse science’s rational argument for good stewardship of the earth; it also engages heart and soul, in ways beyond the purview of science, to appreciate nature and existence as filled with significance, even sacredness; perceptions that at the same time as they nourish one’s sense of union with the ecosystem also nourish one’s sense of ultimate meaning.

 

Here the ecobardic outlook may be at odds with those strands of ecocriticism premised on the materialist assumption that only that which is scientifically demonstrable can be taken seriously and anything else should be dismissed as ‘mysticism’. This stance, ironically, positions such ecocriticism within the same broad mindset that has alienated modern civilisation from nature and precipitated the ecological crisis. Hardline materialism, as advanced most evangelically by Richard Dawkins, stands today in implacable antagonism to equally hardline religious fundamentalisms. The humility that postmodernism has elaborated about what we can truly know ought to apply even to the belief that the material is all that is. Where postmodern art surrenders to the anomic view that nothing remains to be done except ironic play with the exhausted tropes of the past, ecobardic art embraces Keats’s ‘negative capability’, whereby mystery and uncertainty facilitate wonder and the recognition of meaning in one’s life, and finds in the space of paradox between competing worldviews – between science and metaphysics – the inspiration to recharge the imagination.

 

Beware the materialist zeitgeist that not only seeks to commodify art for pecuniary gain but also, when it gains a green conscience, will dismiss as worthless any art that serves no direct instrumentalist purpose of social change. The intention of this Ecobardic Manifesto may itself run the risk of being neutralised by bandwagoning work that adopts an ecobardic pose but lacks artistic integrity. Art is not just a means to an end, whether of profit or politics; it’s part of what human existence is most profoundly about. When we trust the integrity of our art as art, as pathway of enchantment, it retains greatest potency to resist commodification and transform the world.

 

Not conclusion, but an endless quest

 

The clash between materialist and metaphysical interpretations of the world is the starkest of several instances in this manifesto of the necessity that the arts, if they are to address our present quandary, embrace contradiction between seemingly opposed values. In the tradition of romanticism, the ecobardic seeks creative synthesis between the inner and outer worlds. It seeks to express truth and at the same time acknowledges the uncertainty of knowledge. It values art as art and at the same time accepts social and ecological responsibility. It celebrates rootedness at the same time as cultural diversity. It draws upon tradition as well as innovation. It accepts the need to shock as well as to comfort. It seeks to be accessible and at the same time to make demands on the audience’s imagination. It pursues artistic excellence and at the same time encourages everyone to be creative. It respects both the findings of science and the meaning to be found in metaphysical enchantment. There are things of value on both sides of each dichotomy. Dualistic thinking that heavily emphasises one side and devalues the other leads to entrenched positions between which reactions bounce back and forth without generating positive transformation.

 

The ecological crisis presents practical conflicts that are very difficult to manage, such as the conflict that arises between human survival and wildlife conservation when natural resources get scarce. If you carry on ‘business as usual’, in the end you lose everything; there can be no resolution of such a conflict unless the frame of what is under consideration is expanded to include other factors that impinge on the conflict and you seek some equilibrium of coexistence – in this case, between the people and the wildlife. The arts need to take the lead. If we can’t attempt such a transforming process in work of the imagination, what hope is there of achieving it in the world at large? That which we imagine in the inner world may help to determine what comes to pass in the outer. If we believe that laissez-faire economics and the clash of civilisations are the only way things can be, then deepening environmental crisis is inevitable. ‘Labeling as idealistic, utopian or naive those who believe change is possible can be seen as the most effective way to make sure that things are left exactly as they are,’ comments Gablik.24 But if art tries to imagine and mediate hopeful alternatives, then maybe hope will be seeded in people’s hearts and there’ll be a chance the necessary social change will take place.

 

Whatever we do, the world will keep changing. Each moment of synthesis will be but a way station en route to new challenges – which will beg the mediation of new syntheses in a continuous dynamic of transformation. We cannot expect to achieve a final resolution of anything, least of all a perfect world, this side of eternity. In the provisionality of our mortal lives, in the joy and suffering of the day, what matters more is the quality of connection between people, creatures, environment, and our sense of ultimate things, along pathways of creative transformation.

 

For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time. Percy Bysshe Shelley25

 

Exemplars of ecobardic

 

Antecedents of what we call ecobardic art may be traced back to the edge of prehistoric tradition; in Britain, for example, through Richard Jefferies, William Morris, John Ruskin, John Clare, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, the Romantic poets, and parts of Shakespeare, to greenwood ballads and themes of the wasteland and unheimlich woodland beings in Arthurian romance. We choose the beginning of the twentieth century – the spring tide of modernism, when the industrialisation of Europe was about to intersect with competition for resources to produce total war – as the point at which to begin referring to the work of certain artists as ‘ecobardic’. We’ve made a selection (far from exhaustive) of artists who’ve inspired us whose work is (to some degree) ecobardic. What really matters is the sum impact of each artist’s career, but for certain disciplines (prose, music, film, architecture) we thought it useful to list one notably ecobardic work by each artist.

 

Here they are, then, emerging from the modernist and postmodernist past, some more consciously green than others, the vanguard of an ecobardic movement in the art:

 

Artists

 

Pablo Amaringo

Ann Arnold

Graham Arnold

Michael Ayrton

Edward Bawden

Joseph Beuys

Pierre Bonnard

Jean-Luc Bousquet

Charles Burchfield

Marc Chagall

Cecil Collins

Alex Colville

John Craxton

Maurice Denis

André Derain

Stephen Dixon

John Duncan

Michael Fishel

Helen Garrett

Andy Goldsworthy

F. L. Griggs

Andrew Hardwick

Erich Heckel

Tristram Hillier

Ivon Hitchens

Grizelda Holderness

Edward Hopper

Ida Bagu Made

David Inshaw

Robin Ironside

David Jones

Rockwell Kent

Tom Killion

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Emmanuel Lepage

Richard Long

August Macke

Henri-Charles Manguin

Franz Marc

Ludwig Meidner

John Minton

Cedric Morris

Otto Mueller

Paul Nash

Nicholas Roerich

Annie Ovenden

Graham Ovenden

Ione Parkin

Max Pechstein

John Piper

Eric Ravilious

Diego Rivera

Paul Scott

William Simmonds

Stanley Spencer

Walter Spies

Graham Sutherland

Holger Trülzsch

George Tute

Rebecca Vincent

Roger Wagner

Jens Ferdinand Willumsen

Carel Willink

 

Dancers

 

Ya’acov and Susannah Darling-Khan

Isadora Duncan

Dawn Morgan

Margaret Morris

Gabrielle Roth

 

Storytellers

 

Helen East

Francis Firebrace

Jane Flood

Malcolm Green

Ben Haggarty

Kelvin Hall

Grace Hallworth

Sue Hollingsworth

Dominic Kelly

Hugh Lupton

Gordon MacLellan

Eric Maddern

Martin Maudsley

Mary Medlicott

Nick Hennessey

Ashley Ramsden

Chris Salisbury

Susan Strauss

 

Poets

 

Roselle Angwin

Andy Brown

John Burnside

Birago Diop

Odysseus Elytis

Rose Flint

Nikos Gatsos

Robert Graves

Ivor Gurney

Jen Hadfield

Lee Harwood

Seamus Heaney

Jeremy Hooker

Adam Horovitz

Ted Hughes

Charlotte Hussey

David Jones

Sorley MacLean

Jehanne Mehta

Gabriel Bradford Millar

Helen Moore

Ben Okri

Alice Oswald

Mary Palmer

Jay Ramsay

Deryn Rees-Jones

George Seferis

Angelos Sikelianos

Gary Snyder

Dylan Thomas

Edward Thomas

Vernon Watkins

Heathcote Williams

W. B. Yeats

 

Prose writers

 

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Paolo Bacigalupi, Pump Six and Other Stories

Peter Benson, The Levels

J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World

H. E. Bates, The Purple Plain

T. C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

André Brink, An Instant in the Wind

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia

Lindsay Clarke, The Water Table

Jim Crace, Harvest

Roger Deakin, Waterlog

Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Helen Dunmore, The Siege

E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

John Fowles, Daniel Martin

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet

Déwé Gorodé, The Kanak Apple Season

Jay Griffiths, Wild

Jean Hegland, Into the Forest

Frank Herbert, Dune

Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

W. H. Hudson, Green Mansions

Aldous Huxley, Island

Hammond Innes, The Big Footprints

Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Graham Joyce, The Limits of Enchantment

Richard Kerridge, Cold Blood

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behaviour

Nicolas Kurtovitch, Forêt, terre et tabac

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home

Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie

Julia Leigh, The Hunter

Peter Levi, The Hill of Kronos

C. S. Lewis, Perelandra

Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers

John Lister-Kaye, At the Water’s Edge

R. M. Lockley, Letters from Skokholm

Barry Lopez, About This Life

Richard Mabey, The Common Ground

Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams

Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

Sara Maitland, The Book of Silence

Peter Matthiessen, African Silences

Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves

Alan Moore, Voice of the Fire

Stratis Myrivilis, The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes

John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance

Christopher Priest, The Dream Archipelago

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

Owen Sheers, Resistance

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Henry Shukman, The Lost City

Anne Sibran, La Terre Sans Mal

Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes

Iain Sinclair, Edge of the Orison

Chantal T. Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams

Starhawk, Walking to Mercury

Jeffrey Taylor, Facing the Congo

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Laurens van der Post, The Heart of the Hunter

Brian K. Vaughan, Pride of Baghdad

T. H. White, The Once and Future King

Robert Charles Wilson, Bios

Austin Tappan Wright, Islandia

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

David Zindell, Neverness

 

Designers

 

Charles Robert Ashbee

Ernest Barnsley

Sidney Barnsley

Ernest Gimson

Hundertwasser

W. R. Lethaby

Rudolf Steiner

Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Musicians

 

Baka Beyond, Rhythm Tree

Shirley Collins, The Power of the True Love Knot

Fiona Davidson, The Language of Birds

Peter Gabriel, Passion

The Full English, The Full English

Martin Hayes, Welcome Here Again

Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw, Weaving the Land

James Hollingsworth, 13 Moons

The Imagined Village, The Imagined Village

Talis Kimberley, Queen of Spindles

Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

Omnia, Pagan Folk

Pedal Folk, In Pursuit of Spring

Emily Portman, The Glamoury

Praying for the Rain, Sanctuary

Deborah Rose, Song Be My Soul

Matt Sage, Strange News from Another Star

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Coincidence and Likely Stories

Seize the Day, Seize the Day

Patti Smith, Horses

The Space Goats, 13 Moons in Motion

Kristi Stassinopoulou, Secrets of the Rocks

Alan Stivell, Beyond Words

Te Vaka, Olatia

Richard Thompson, Grizzly Man

The Waterboys, Fisherman’s Blues

Robin Williamson, The Iron Stone

Chris Wood, Handmade Life

World Party, Private Revolution

The Yirdbards, I Will Sing You This Spring

 

Film makers

 

Jean-Jacques Annaud, Quest for Fire

Darren Aranofsky, The Fountain

Franny Armstrong, The Age of Stupid

David Attenborough, The First Eden

Steve Barron, Dreamkeeper

Marco Bechis, Birdwatchers

John Boorman, The Emerald Forest

James Cameron, Avatar

Jane Campion, Bright Star

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Peter Crawford, The Living Isles

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Matt Damon, Promised Land

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Eleventh Hour

Emanuele Crialese, Respiro

Bill Forsyth, Local Hero

Rolf de Heer, Ten Canoes

Werner Herzog, Lessons of Darkness

Derek Jarman, The Garden

Kim Ki-Duk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring

Jan Kounen, Renegade

Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjurat

Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout

Jacques Malaterre, Ao: The Last Hunter

Terrence Malick, The New World

Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke

Peter Jackson, King Kong

Sean Penn, Into the Wild

Michael Powell, A Matter of Life and Death

Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner

Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies

Vincent Ward, What Dreams May Come

Wim Wenders, Until the End of the World

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

Notes

 

1.      Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free, Phoenix, London, 1997.

2.      See Richard Hughes, ‘That’s Showbusiness’, The Guardian, 30 June 2004, <http://www.guardian.co.uk:80/artanddesign/2004/jun/30/art1>.

3.      Quoted in Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-romantic Artists and Their Times, I. B. Tauris, London, 2001.

4.      Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991.

5.      Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991, Michael Joseph, London, 1994.

6.      Cheryll Glotfelty, ‘Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis’, in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1996, p. xx.

7.      Adapted from Anthony Nanson, ‘Points to include in the Fire Springs manifesto’, planning document, 10 January 2005, quoted in the outline of ‘eco-bardic principles’ in Kevan Manwaring, The Bardic Handbook: The Complete Manual for the Twenty-First Century Bard, Gothic Image, Glastonbury, England, 2006, p. 294.

8.      Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, London, 1999.

9.      Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Macmillan, Basingstoke, England, 2001, p. 281.

10.  See Anthony Nanson, Storytelling and Ecology: Reconnecting Nature and People through Oral Narrative, Society for Storytelling, Reading, 2005.

11.  J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, in Tree and Leaf, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1964.

12.  D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’, in idem, Selected Critical Writings, ed. Michael Herbert, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.

13.  See Jack Zipes, Revisiting the Storyteller: Reviving the Past to Move Forwards, Society for Storytelling, Reading, 1996.

14.  Geoffrey Ashe, Camelot and the Vision of Albion, Book Club Associates, London, 1975, p. 159.

15.  Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2006.

16.  Gablik, op. cit.

17.  Ted Hughes, ‘Poetry and Violence’, in Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, ed. William Scammell, Faber & Faber, London, 1994.

18.  Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1968.

19.  Manwaring, op. cit.

20.  See David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, Profile, London, 2006.

21.  Gablik, op. cit.

22.  Richard Mabey, Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees, Chatto & Windus, London, 2007.

23.  Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1994.

24.  Gablik, op. cit., p. 25.

25.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, In Defence of Poetry, quoted in Raymond Lister, British Romantic Art, G. Bell, London, 1973, p. 23.

 

* Fire Springs are Anthony Nanson, Kevan Manwaring, David Metcalfe, Kirsty Hartsiotis, and Richard Selby.

 

Copyright © 2008 Fire Springs