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The Elephant In The Room

By Anne-Marie Culhane

Monday, February 13, 2017

Last weekend our family had a discussion about the difference between an African and an Asian elephant. I had forgotten, and it was only on Googling that I remembered ‘of course’ an African elephant has larger ears, is more wrinkly, and bigger in size. How I previously knew this (and was jolted into remembering) is because elephants appear in so many images – from drawings in children’s books to Indian miniatures – that these artists impressions have entered my subconscious.

From the children’s book Dr DeSoto in Africa

During the course of a three-day lab on Encounters ‘Relationships’ we set a clear intention to remain conscious of our wild relatives in the natural world:

To keep the elephant in the room.

Why do this?

Our current vision statement-in-progress is for: “a creative, caring, connected world where all can flourish living within the Earth’s natural limits.”

Within this ‘all can flourish’ approach is the aim to include and extend beyond the human community into the other-than-human community to acknowledge our interdependence with insects, plants, animals, fungi, rivers etc. We want to actively bring into our work the biotic community who make up the intricate weave of each and every place. With this in mind every lab was punctuated by some sort of contact with the natural world. The Dart River and a noble, scarred beech tree became places of regular visitation and inspiration.

An invitation was given to four people who had worked with Encounters in the past as a participant in a project; a project partner; an associate artist and one person who was interested in possibly becoming an Encounters ‘Companion’, perhaps as a paid intern or mentee. Walking through woods and over fields, we asked them to respond to a series of questions while we engaged as ‘active listeners’. I walked with Frances Northrop from the Totnes Community Development Society who had been a commissioning partner for Encounters as part of the groundbreaking ATMOS project. Encounters was engaged to design and co-ordinate the community consultation phase of the project in 2015.

She told me the project successfully engaged hundreds of people, forged enduring friendships and work connections, and provided a vital healing space for people and families connected to the site. It also opened up a broader sense of time so people were thinking beyond the lifetime of the Dairy Crest factory to the land itself and what was there before; its natural ecology as a guide for the possibilities of the future.

Towards the end of the twilight walk we asked our guests to describe Encounters as something from nature. Frances identified Encounters as a fox’s lair nestled under the tree-line – warm and welcoming, lined with moss & lichen.

And with somewhat magical synchronicity the ‘Relationship’ lab coincided with an evening gathering at Dartington Church to mark the day for Remembrance Day for Lost Species  (30 November). This is a growing international memorial started in Brighton by Feral Theatre that acknowledges loss of biodiversity and tells the stories of lost and disappearing species. The organisers, Wild Church, had set up a series of four candlelit altars in almost-darkness to honour and remember creatures of the air, earth and water with a fire space to reflect on our individual relationship to the world. The ceremony was simple, quiet, moving and generous, and it further strengthened our renewed focus on bringing the natural world into our dialogue more strongly, through our projects and with our partners.

On the last morning of the three-day lab, and in heavy frost, we headed back to the edge of the River Dart wrapped in blankets and full of questions. Who do we want to stand beside? Who would we like to work with? Who or what can support our work?  Walking past the familiar but always inspiring beech tree, I became transfixed by a shape of a large bur in its bark (a monkey eating his tail) or Ouroboros.

Plato describes the universe in terms of an Ouroboros which portrays the cycle of life of all beings on the earth. It shows that all of nature is interconnected. Another definition frames the Ouroboros as a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.

Walking beyond frosted spiders webs, we arrived at the river where Lucy spotted through the clear surface a salmon probably as long as my outstretched forearm. Thick and muscular, the fish was blotched with chalky-white circles. We watched the slow muscular movement as it suspended itself, still in the shallow water-flow, and then with a jerk, it was gone. We were filled with questions. Was this fish healthy or unhealthy? We sensed it was old… that this was a body slowing down, approaching death. We would look it up on our return and find out what the markings were.

Heading back, Shelley read for us from a book of feathers about the incredible articulacy of a wren, the smallest of birds:

‘Each follicle is surrounded by strong muscles and nerves that give birds surprising agility with individual feathers. They can fluff them for warmth, lift them for preening or display, and even make fine adjustments during flight to maximise aerodynamic efficiency. Certain feathers also act as critical sensory organs, particularly facial bristles and the tiny filoplumes that surround flight feathers. Considering the thousands of feathers than cover even the smallest bird’s body, coordinating such movements is quite an engineering feat. It would be like a person straightening their part with a thought, twitching individual ear hairs, or accurately judging wind speed from the play of a breeze across their eyebrows’.

– Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson

Back at the studio our online search yielded a range of different stories explaining the skin fungus  – a common and naturally occurring salmon fungus causing periodic outbreaks of mass salmon death. But we couldn’t work out the exact cause of this disease. I reflected on my tendency to think of the salmon’s infection as being caused by humans. We live in a world where our negative impacts on ecosystems are so many that it is easy to assume that all death or disease is human-generated.

Who could tell us the real story of this salmon?

As we deepen our relationship to the bioregion, the story of this salmon will become clearer. We look forward to designing new projects weaving the human and nonhuman worlds together in creative, practical and meaningful ways.

‘Our feelings of attachment for the natural world are for nonhuman creatures and for places. The anxiety we feel is not merely for the destruction of human lives but also for those other creatures and places, and for a world in which we would be at home. Not only are these other beings and life forms not human, they are without human language. This means that our relation to the natural world is in some important way nonverbal and unspoken.  We may speak to other human beings or to ourselves about our encounter with the natural world, but the encounter itself does not transpire in the medium of human language.  Does this mean that to speak about that encounter is to objectify it rather than to express our experience directly? How indeed do I express and live my relatedness to the nonhuman?’

– The love of Nature and the End of the World by Sherry Weber Nicholsen.

Anne-Marie Culhane

As part of Elevate funding from ACE Encounters have been undergoing a deep organizational development process that includes exploring how to share the creative and strategic leadership of Encounters between Creative Director Ruth Ben-Tovim, and long term associates of Encounters; Anne- Marie Culhane, Shelley Castle, Lucy Neal.