The Art of Psychoecology: an introduction to The Wonderings

The Art of Psychoecology: an introduction to The Wonderings

Warren Draper

The natural environment has, of course, always inspired artistic creation, and there is a long succession of artists and movements who have sought to bring the non-human world back into the heart of human culture. But, given the current and deepening Climate & Extinction Emergency, there have scarcely been more urgent times for this work than now; an urgency which is driving new and evolving cultural output. An important aspect of the current wave of ecologically aware creativity is New Nature Writing. With works as beautifully diverse as the subject they deal with, this genre is hard to encapsulate, but it might be described as nature writing which has a tendency to be more immediate and immersive. The writing is more experiential, describing what Joe Moran calls “our everyday connections with the natural world” (a big thank you to Stephen Moss for highlighting Moran’s quote in the Observer). 

Related to New Nature Writing, is a resurgence of interest in psychogeography. Developed in the mid 20th Century by members of the radical political art movements the Letterist International and Situationist International, psychogeography involves a playful examination of the impact that our environment has on our psyche. Or as the Situationist Guy Debord described it, psychogeography is: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Initially the focus was on the planned and built urban environment of cities, but subsequent years, and the new resurgence in particular, have seen the focus of psychogeography broaden to include much older, wilder, geographical locations. One of the best places to get a feel for the new wave of psychogeography in Britain is the utterly wonderful Weird Walk magazine (more on my new favourite zine in a moment).

Just as the Situationists were keen to break down barriers between culture and everyday life, the New Nature Writers are keen to break down the barriers between nature and everyday life; and for much the same reasons. If we are not playful actors within our environment, then we risk becoming alienated both to it, and by it. Psychogeography recognises the psychological dangers of alienation which come from seeing the built environment as a backdrop, a landscape to be traversed in order to get from A to B, or an obstacle which needs to be overcome — as opposed to a playground to be delighted in. New Nature Writing recognises the ecological alienation which stems from treating nature as something which exists outside of the human condition — as opposed to an intrinsic and utterly inseparable part of us… and we of it. 

Alienation creates both the pandemic of social isolation (a socioeconomic disease as deadly as the current coronavirus pandemic) and the cognitive dissonance necessary for the continuation of the Climate & Extinction Emergency. The techniques of psychogeography and the genre of New Nature Writing are coming to the fore because we are living through a time where reconnection with nature, with each other, and with our innate creativity, is not just important, it is a matter of survival.

Unfortunately, reconnection and reconciliation with the natural world is still not of central concern to the creative industries as a whole. Look at our collective cultural output. Notice anything missing? Where is the natural world. Where is the beautiful, dangerous, ecstatic, cruel, loving, terrifying, erotic, painful, mundane, cacophony of life itself? If it features at all, the non-human world is more likely to be cast as adversary than ally. The actual, living, vibrant, natural, wild world has been largely confined to our documentary channels. For too long there has been a sterility in mainstream art and culture which has subliminally reinforced a message of anti-wildness in keeping with the anti-life values of our wider economic, political and bureaucratic systems. Unfortunately, this has even been true of some contemporary art and culture which pertains to ‘educate’ about the Climate & Extinction Emergency while it still exploits non-human lives, and employs ecologically unsound production techniques, to forward its otherwise well-intentioned message. Not enough work is being done to rewild our culture and reconnect us to the living systems on which we all depend. 

There are, of course, noticeable exceptions. The piece of writing you are currently reading, and the collective creative work I am hoping to encourage, has been inspired by David Bramwell’s The Cult of Water. It is no coincidence that David’s multi-disciplined artwork is both a piece of ecologically aware psychogeography and a brilliant piece of New Nature Writing. The Cult of Water is an act of reconciliation. Wandering through a South Yorkshire landscape long ravaged, blackened and denatured by Vulcan (overseer of the steel city, and hero of the industrial revolution), David takes us on a journey, through both landscape and time, to find and reconnect with Danu, the “goddess of primordial waters who gave her name to the Don”, the river, of course, from which Doncaster was named. Not only a good read with a great soundtrack, it is the perfect metaphor for the cultural work which all ecologically aware creatives should now be engaged in.

The book is a pleasure in its own right, but the soundtrack and performance aspects take it to a whole other level. It is a work of art. It is a work of psychogeography. It is a work of magic. It is a work of ritual. It is a work of cultural rewilding.I would like to put forward the argument that it is a work of psychoecology.

The word psychoecology does already crop up now and then, usually as a synonym for ecopsychology, a synthesis of psychology and ecology which Theodore Roszak described as a: “synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being.” But I would like to propose that the phrase also be used to describe a branch of psychogeography which engages with the non-human world in order to inspire multidisciplinary artistic creations designed to potentially facilitate in the rewilding of art and culture. 

David and I are both contributors to the Idler magazine. It was through my work with the Idler that I met Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain project. Another ecologically important project which looks at the multiple crises we currently face to seek out and encourage stories which: can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty”. Paul encouraged me to write for the Dark Mountain Journal and, coincidentally, Dougald Hine, Dark Mountain’s other co-founder, wrote about Rachel Horne in the same issue. As a result of this Rachel and I both attended Dark Mountain’s 2010 Uncivilisation festival in Hampshire which led to the creation of The Telling, one of our first major creative collaborations. 

Both David’s The Cult of Water and Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation festivals are perfect models for future psychoecological explorations. Each occupy a liminal space — between the human and non-human living world, between myth and reality, between story and the everyday, between being and becoming — where one can experiment with reconnection. 

This year marks the tenth anniversary of our first The Telling event; an evening of music, art, storytelling and food-sharing which slowly developed into a weekend mini-festival. The full story of how The Telling came into being can be found here, but, as I said back then, it can be loosely summed up as an: “endeavour to create a democracy of voice and a seed-bank of tales”. We recognised the importance of the Dark Mountain project’s search for new stories in this age of crises, and felt that some of the most relevant stories might be found amongst the places and people who were already familiar with crises and collapse. A place like Doncaster perhaps?

We have often been asked to create another The Telling, but it is the kind of event born of enchantment. Depending utterly on the right people, the right place, the right moment, the right motivation and the right inspirations. Although I am at my happiest when I am creating projects like The Telling — and despite my work as Bentley Urban Farm being very much a continuation of The Telling’s themes, techniques and goals — it has never felt quite right to revisit The Telling itself. But the current climate and David’s book have forced me to think harder about the need for more Tellingesque activities. With David performing The Cult of Water at Doncaster’s Cast theatre in May this year, I thought it would be good to create a series of smaller, more intimate psychoecological happenings which have elements designed to celebrate and reconnect with the non-human world, but which ask nothing in return of that world (have we not already imposed too much of our will upon nature?). More of an apology than a ritual or a liturgy. 

As with The Telling, the idea is simply to create the possibility of enchantment and wonder. It is hardly surprising that enchantment is in scarce supply in a society so dangerously disconnected from the natural world. As Patrick Curry points out in his important and timely book, Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life (Floris Books, 2019): “ultimately, all experiences of enchantment are natural”, stemming from the fact that, no matter what vainglorious myth we might tell ourselves, we humans are named so because we are humanus (Latin), derived from the Indo-European word for Earth, dhlegm; meaning we are of earth and of the Earth. As Curry observes:

“That is why it is dangerous nonsense to dream of ‘conquering nature’. Victory in such a war would amount not only to ecocide — the murderous extermination of most non-human life on Earth — but collective suicide. It follows that the only sane definition of civilisation is the graceful accommodation and, when possible, celebration, of nature. Such a way of life wouldn’t itself amount to enchantment, but it would leave plenty of room for it.”

The Wonderings will seek to invite moments of enchantment (invite, because, as Patrick Curry’s book shows, enchantment can never be forced). They will be a series of intimate, Tellingesque happenings which will take place at liminal, wild and/or forgotten spaces around Doncaster over the coming months and years (perhaps evolving into a new The Telling). As with The Telling, they will be a DIY affair, blurring the lines between audience and performance (the ultimate aim is enchantment, rather than entertainment… although both would be a bonus), where we simply choose something like an auspicious date, or a location which inspires us, to come together in order to create. The first of The Wonderings will be at a location near the Don, in honour of both Danu and The Cult of Water, on 20/02/2022; a suitably rare two digit date palindrome. The rest will be decided by those who join us for the initial event.

When deciding upon a name, I Googled ‘wonderings’ and was pleasantly rewarded with a link to the aforementioned Weird Walk, a magazine with the tagline: “a journal of wanderings and wonderings from the British Isles”. It was this publication which made me realise that the work I am currently inviting people to embark upon is in no way novel. The decade since The Telling has brought global upheavals, but it has also, thanks mainly to Greta Thunberg and the generation she has inspired, brought a more intense ecological focus. Weird Walk might find inspiration in folk traditions and prehistory, but, like Dark Mountain, it is actually part of a contemporary movement which is seeking new myths and stories so that we can better understand and navigate this troubled age. As the creators themselves explain:

Being out in the countryside for extended periods, away from screens and distractions, not only refreshed our brains but sparked a creative enthusiasm for the countless stories in the landscape that we yomped across … By walking the ancient paths, visiting the sacred sites, and immersing ourselves in the folklore and customs of these isles, we hope to fan the faint embers of magic that still smoulder in the grate and conjure that elusive temporal trackway of history and mystery, a weird walk that bypasses nostalgia and leads us back towards optimism and re-enchantment.”

Weird Walk understands that the land itself shapes our stories, and so shapes us. Stories born of the land can, of course, be corrupted by those who like to divide the people with abstract constructs such as nationalism. But as the final episode of Zakia Sewell’s incredible My Albion podcast points out (Zakia features in issue four of Weird Walk), the most enigmatic emblem of Albion’s landscape, Stonehenge, predates the country of England and the colonialism of the British Empire by several millennia. Stonehenge is aligned to the sun in conjunction with the solstices; a sun which has given warmth and energy to every single human being ever to walk the Earth, with no bias toward race, ethnicity, culture or religion. Stonehenge was built by people with a wider, cosmological perspective than those nation and empire builders who would try to define themselves by some arbitrary lines on a map. In fact, British megalithic constructions began with a wave of settlers from Anatolia, modern day Turkey, and were finished by settlers from the Russian steppe. The land shapes the myths which in turn shape the experiences of the people who live on that land, who’s lives in turn shape more myths. It is a being thing, not a blood thing or a genetic thing. Stormzy is now as much a part of the Glastonbury mythos as Arthur Pendragon. 

As Zakia rightly points out, we cannot ignore recent history and the bigotry of the myths which underpinned colonialism. From Northern Ireland to Rwanda, it has been proven that the only effective way to move on is through truth and reconciliation. The fight against oppression is always the fight of memory against forgetting. But we can seek out new myths which better represent a land more diverse, more aged and more wild than many of our current stories would suggest. Not mythology as some dream of a beautiful, forgotten, non exitent — and most likely never existing — utopia, but as a way to understand who we are now, our relationship with the land and the non-human world, and how we might find the stories which will allow those who follow us to continue living in that world… if, that is, the current dominant myth of constant economic growth doesn’t take away their future, and ours.

I hope that you can join us in our wonderings. If you’d like to get involved please email doncopolitan@gmail.com

Photography by John Fuller taken during various The Telling events

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