Learning to See with Ancient Eyes: Reflections on Climate, Education and Social Change by Ben Rawlence

Look at the Black Mountains – those green and pleasant hills!

What do you see?

Where are the trees?

Where should they be?

Were they ever there?

How did the landscape come into being?

Who made it so?

What am I, to them?

What are they, to me?

And, perhaps most importantly, do you see what I see?


The way that we make sense of the world is through our senses, and of all the senses, the eyes are the most sophisticated, and the most deceiving.


From early childhood, we are imprinting on our memory and our DNA a map of the world that we encounter. Our brain is patterning the world, helping us to make sense of threats, needs, opportunities and relationships. It is designed to help us notice the unfamiliar, the out of context. If something is commonplace, part of the landscape (or the furniture), it can be safely disregarded: daily life doesn’t truck in surprises. And, like a modern software programme, it is constantly updating itself according to new information and new environments. If something is not relevant or critical to my immediate needs and purposes it can be forgotten. The brain is a machine not just for noticing but for prioritising and forgetting.


What happens when the environment is changing more slowly than we notice? Or if the changes are not relevant to our immediate needs – the relationship to our surviving or thriving is not obvious and therefore not noticed by our patterning brain in the first place? And what if we had no sense of what the environment used to look like, what the baseline was: how would we even know what had been lost, or our place in the grand narrative of things?


We might be standing in an ecological desert whilst praising it as a paradise. We might be sitting in a crime scene and calling it heritage.


Uncovering the history of place and our relation to it is always necessary work – place makes us who we are and shapes and constrains how we think, act and dream. But the history of the land and our relation to it is so much more urgent and important at the current moment when its ability to sustain us is in jeopardy.


Ever since I discovered that peat is largely the product of anomalous deforestation, whether driven by climate change or human destruction I have been concerned with how we see the treeless hills of our uplands. Not just these hills or others in Scotland and the UK but the world over. Looking without seeing what is not there can itself be an act of forgetting. Or indeed of creating new narratives, new myths.


This is why landscape painting is among the most political of artistic acts. It is a salvo in the ongoing battle for definition of what is seen and what is obscured. What is acknowledged and what is ignored, and, ultimately, what counts as “natural” at all.


This is potent territory at the moment in Wales, Scotland, the UK and the world as a whole as governments and corporations make claims about what the land “should” look like, “used to” look like or indeed “needs” to look like if we are to enlist nature’s help in staving off the worst impacts of climate change. Even more so as contemporary struggles over land awaken older wounds and patterns of theft, colonialism, settlement and environmental abuse and degradation. Climate justice is, in its proper and fullest sense, a call for social justice and reparations for slavery, colonialism and environmental damage over the long haul.


Coming to terms with what is to be done, therefore, in the face of the existential challenge of the climate and ecological emergency, involves seeing the landscape clearly. Its past and its present and the journey between the two. And, crucially, the future that it might sustain.


To see this past, present and future clearly, however requires us to look with new eyes. We can call this way of seeing ‘ancient’, ‘indigenous’ or perhaps even ‘post-modern’ and, to my mind, it involves elements of all three. But what it foregrounds above all is attention to the relationship between people and landscape including, at the meta level, how we come to see and represent that relationship: how we see affects how, and who, we are. Perception is participation as the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty would say.


When Sidney Nolan gazed out at the Australian Bush and saw in it a figure on a horse with a metal helmet and a slit for eyes, he was painting, in visual form, a relationship between human and nature. Between English settlers and this ancient land. Part of the power and relevance of the Ned Kelly paintings, it has been said it that it captures the double contradiction of the settler-colonial experience. The settler in a strange and foreign land who is, at the same time, a fugitive from that project who has rejected it’s premises and promises of law, order and legalized larceny.


Nolan has said of his other landscape paintings of the Australian landscape, “I wanted to know the true nature of the ‘otherness’ I had been born into… I wanted a visual form of the ‘otherness’ of the thing not seen.”


In short, he was looking for something. I don’t know if he found it. But the overwhelming impression I get of his landscapes at every stage of his life is this feeling of ‘otherness’.


It is the quintessential modern condition of anomie. Just like Rimbuad, Ahab or Kurtz, who went all the way to Ethiopia, the South Seas or Congo in search of the other only to come face to face with themselves. The eerie images of horses in trees, skulls, drought, carcasses in swamps, or tree stumps in the background of Ned Kelly with his lance show an awareness of the latent violence of the colony on the land without ever depicting it explicitly.


That is what I see, as a relative newcomer to Nolan, under a new sky made of 428 ppm of carbon dioxide that throws the light in a different direction. I see an artist who was asking questions, who was bringing things ‘not seen’ into view.


And this is how most art of the murderous colonial era will be judged in retrospect: did they know? Did they see? Durable art is that which speaks to the universal whilst also retaining its purchase on its own historical moment. That will always be the art that is relevant to current moments and current struggles. Art that helps us “see” the past and the present afresh, and that sustains the explanatory story between them.


What is missing in Nolan of course is the indigenous population in that landscape. Only in later life it seems in response to the Report of Aboriginal Deaths in Custody did indigenous portraits begin to appear in Nolan’s oeuvre. But, in the context of Australia as it was and still is, I can see that was still quite ahead of its time. And Australia is not unique in this respect. Violence, enclosure and indigenous erasure underpin modernity everywhere – (just look at the Highland clearances in Scotland, the Tudor enclosures in England or the clearing of the Celts from Wales and Ireland) not just in its more recent outposts.


In his depiction of a modern sensibility divorced from place, that also seeks to appropriate it in its own struggle for meaning, Nolan was in some sense painting all our presents: the settler colonial disposition is perhaps the epitome of modernity. And Ned Kelly’s double bind: we are all both colonizer and victim/outcast, is the one that we must all now escape.


Modernism captured the contradictions of modernity but it offered few solutions.


It is a formidable task. We are in a similar predicament: we are all up the Wimerra River, (or the River Wye) without a paddle.


So what is the way back? Or forward? Returning to the landscape offers a possible path. And this is the introduction to critical ways of seeing that Black Mountains College promotes to help to imagine, and realise, more sustainable, that is to say, harmonious ways of living and working in the future.


The first task is looking back. The kinds of futures we can imagine depend very much on how we see the past: what threads or raw materials do we think we can draw on. What is the legacy or story that we are continuing?


Looking at landscape then is not just about seeing but also about choosing. Do we all see the same thing? Do we agree on what is good and bad about these hills?


The second tasks is looking now. Can we assume the painter’s perspective, can we train our senses to upend what we might assume is familiar, to see what is really there? This is why all students at Black Mountains College practise drawing from life. As did all students at the original Black Mountain in North Carolina, famously studying with Edward Albers the refugee from Bauhaus.


And can we be attentive to that process, to how that attention shapes and makes us – in relationship to the land. On one level, this is easy and uncontroversial: romantic notions of beauty, joy and wonder. What some call “nature connection”. But on another level this relationship is much more complicated: raising questions of morality, ethics and cosmology: how do we treat (and revere) animals, plants, ecosystems that we also use (and are currently massively over-using and abusing).


This is where learning to see with ancient eyes is most useful.


Famously, in other places, particularly in North America, indigenous peoples seeking to heal the damage inflicted on their societies are returning to the land, recovering native languages and practices. I wrote about the incredible example of the Anishinaabe of Pimachiowin Aki in Canada who, by retracing older journeys upriver and restaging older traditions have come to breakthrough to communal story-telling of previously hidden histories and traumatised elders and addicted youth have been helped in finding healthier futures. Human relationships and relations with the non-human world are intertwined and looking after the non-human helps the human.


Now, in those contexts, as in Australia, the indigenous lifeways of alternative, non-extractive ways of being in relationship to the land are much nearer and in some cases, like in Northern Canada, still alive.


There is a grammar, a roadmap for recovery. Even if it is in stark contrast to the modern elements of all of our lives, including the Native Americans or First Nations peoples who still fly, drive and consume processed food grown far away. It is a starting point, a frame of reference. A moral code to take the place of modern laws and regulations that have utterly failed to limit damage to the soil, forest, river, sea and atmosphere that we and all beings need for life.


Earlier this month, at Black Mountains College we hosted Jojo Mehta from Stop Ecocide International who explained that the drive to have a criminal definition for ‘ecocide’ akin to corporate manslaughter was to effect change at the level of culture. If a person can be individually liable and can got to prison for knowingly destroying and ecosystem in whole or in part then you change not just the calculations of executives and decision-makers, but you change the culture around what is acceptable behaviour. At present, the killing of the River Wye by chicken farms, Water companies and the negligence of the planning authorities is not a criminal offence, but if it was how different things might be.


The point here is that law relies on culture and vice versa. It is a dynamic relationship. Recovering that cultural reverence and valuation of the land needs new laws but not only laws.


Here in Britain, that past, that way of being in relationship to the land, can seem very distant, almost lost. But the place where it is closest to the surface is in the edges, the places that were colonised last or resisted for longest.


If we think of the formation of the United Kingdom as a process of internal colonisation where the peasant relationship with the land – a direct an unmediated relation – was systematically severed as patterns of domination and extraction were progressively imposed through “law and order” underwritten by force, then we can see recent British history as part of a continuum. A steady unfolding from the Norman conquest to the wars against the Welsh and Irish, Jacobin “plantations” of “civilised” protestants in Ireland, Australia, New England and so on culminating in the Highland clearances that only finally and fully extinguished Gaelic, its bardic tradition and its durable Celtic mythologies in Scotland in the second half of the twentieth century.


The Celtic fringe, starting here in the marches and westwards, is the place to look for our own ancient, indigenous grammar that can help with that roadmap for recovery.


This takes several forms: the land and our relation to it. And the way that relation is captured in language, in Welsh.


The land itself contains seed banks and memories of ecosystems that survive beneath and despite the violence inflicted upon it. At our college farm, Troed-yr-Harn, we can see the hay meadows that once were from the names of the tithe map. And now, in their second year without sheep, we are seeing wildflowers and their companion butterflies returning that have perhaps been missing for twenty years if not much longer, since before the tractors replaced hay as the fuel of the farm. The Celtic rainforest documented in Guy Shrubsole’s book The Lost Rainforests of Britain, is another example. But the finest and most comprehensive recent guide is a book by another recent visitor to the college, Carwyn Graves, called Tir: The Story of the Welsh Landscape.


Graves tells the story of the land through the Welsh terms for common, hedge bank, orchard and so on revealing the ways in which culture, livelihoods and biodiversity were, in a settled pattern of mutual existence and benefit, intertwined. Humans promoted biodiversity in order to harvest it.


This is absolutely not to say that the future should look like the past. Far from it. But to suggest that there is much to learn from looking at the landscape afresh.


Indeed we will need to reckon with our relationship with the land, since as the climate crisis unfolds, we will be less able to rely on other lands colonised either by our people or by our purchasing power. The land where most of vegetables comes from in Spain and Morocco is drying out, fast. The land where other vegetables and flowers come from in East Africa is flooding with increasing force as the monsoon goes haywire. And the biggest market in the world that has the biggest pull and purchasing power – the European Union – is cut off from us. As drought, floods and food shortages bite harder, the EU will prioritise its members and will be justified in limiting exports outside the bloc whilst hoarding and acquiring critical staples for itself. Witness the tensions over rationing of Covid vaccines.


My hunch is that Brexit will come to be seen as the single most damaging thing we could have done to undermine our nation’s climate resilience.


These challenges are urgent, political and economic. What’s art and landscape got to do with that?


The crisis we are in is not a ‘climate crisis’ or a ‘nature crisis’ it is the denouement of a way of looking at the world that has run its course. As such, policy changes within the current frame of politics and economics are insufficient to the challenge we face. It is a crisis of human values, of what is means to be human. And art has always been about that. Indeed it is intrinsic to what it means to be human and it is our best tool for exploring that question.


Systems only change when there is a culture that demands it. Culture is about relationships to things, places and people. How do we re-engineer relationships? We need to change what we value: we need to change where we place our attention. Art is both the practise and the product of what we value.


Our job is “really looking” as Ed Dorn the famous black mountain poet said. Or as V.S. Naipaul wrote, we must learn to “see” and not just “look”. This is what I mean be seeing with ancient eyes: seeing all that is there, or was there, all that should be there or that might be there. And seeing ourselves in proper relationship to the earth. You might call it a shamanic, an all-seeing cosmology: becoming one.


And how do we spread and share that vision? That hopeful vision? Through art, play, creativity and creative alternatives. We need to show that acting ecologically, being in harmony with nature, is more fun, more rewarding, more beautiful than the harmful alternatives.


Seen this way, our task at this critical juncture of ecological meltdown is about much more than a narrow idea of climate action, of protest and political change, of carbon footprints and of doing without. It is about recovering health and abundance, it is about re-education and social and historical justice. It is about beauty, truth and renewal, of regaining our place and ourselves as figures in the landscape.




We are in a similar predicament.


Welsh offers a way back…


Contradiction, awareness and implication and apology all at once.

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