Sensing life’s sentience through creative practice with Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie
Our first guests on the Haumea ecocultural podcast are niece and uncle, Sarah Gillespie and Peter Reason. In recent years, they have collaborated through drawing and essays in two published books: On Presence (2019) and On Sentience ( 2021). We talk about their collaboration because we share their work at the beginning of the Haumea ecoliteracy course
Sarah is an accomplished visual artists specializing in 16th and 17th century mezzotint techniques and drawing. Her last exhibition was in London in May, 2019 and she created exquisite images of moths. The gradual drawing forth of the image from the darkness, was a seemingly perfect matching of method to subject. These works gained immediate appreciation and were featured on the BBC and in the Guardian.
Peter wants to be part of a change in the way modern humans live on our planet, even at this very late hour. Peter sees his contribution as to help develop and articulate that sense of community and intimacy mainly through his writing. Drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical, and spiritual sources his books, Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea and In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage, weave explorations of the human place and the ecology of the planet into stories of sailing voyages. He writes a regular column in Resurgence And The Ecologist.
Their books are available at peterreason.net
Haumea ecoculture podcast: Eps. 1 with Sarah Gillespie and Peter Reason
[00:00:00] [00:00:00]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:00:09] Hi everyone, my name is Cathy Fitzgerald and welcome to the Haumea ecocultural podcast. I’m an ecosocial artist, an ecological artist, an ecoliteracy educator and researcher, and I live in Ireland. I will be cohosting these sessions with my wonderful philosopher colleague, Nikos Patedakis PhD., who’s based in California.
[00:00:32] In these podcasts, we’ll be hosting insightful conversations with leading cultural workers about the power of creativity for the ecological emergency.
[00:00:41] Welcome to Haumea- and to envisioning a better world
[00:00:45]Our first guests on the Haumea ecocultural podcast are niece and uncle, Sarah Gillespie and Peter Reason. In recent years, they have collaborated through drawing and essays in two [00:01:00] published books: On Presence (2019) and On Sentience ( 2021).
[00:01:04] And in their recent work they ask through their different creative practices, ‘ what would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inanimate objects? How could we relate to such a world? And then, what would art and creativity be like?’
[00:01:22] Sarah is an accomplished visual artists specializing in 16th and 17th century mezzotint techniques and drawing. She read fine art at Pembroke college, Oxford gaining a BFA in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. She is attracted to mezzotint as a method because of its difficulty. It is slow and gradual. And it is those very qualities that are so necessary and important. As a method it presents very few opportunities to impose oneself, to splash gesture or ego. Her last exhibition was in [00:02:00] London in May, 2019 and she created exquisite images of moths. The gradual drawing forth of the image from the darkness, was a seemingly perfect matching of method to subject. These works gained immediate appreciation and were featured on the BBC and in the Guardian. Sarah says of her work-” the world is full of amazing things and we can choose to be ignorant or we can sharpen our senses, give a damn and allow our world to be altered. I try to sit down with a thought, be quiet and attend to what is here. Let the 10,000 things come to you.”
[00:02:39] And Sarah’s uncle, Peter Reason was 18 when Rachel Carson’s 19 62 book Silent Spring heralded the dawn of the modern environmental movement.
[00:02:50] In 1972, the Club of Rome published the book, The Limits to Growth, bringing into the public domain the notion that economic growth [00:03:00] was essentially pernicious. In the same year, Peter was impressed by Gregory Bateson’s assertion In Steps to An Ecology of Mind, that if we didn’t change our relationship to the natural world, our chances of survival were quote- ‘that of a snowball in hell!’
[00:03:15]Peter’s work asks: ‘How do we respond?’ Peter wants to be part of a change in the way modern humans live on our planet, even at this very late hour. Peter sees his contribution as to help develop and articulate that sense of community and intimacy mainly through his writing. Drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical, and spiritual sources his books, Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea and In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage, weave explorations of the human place and the ecology of the planet into stories of sailing voyages. He writes a regular column in Resurgence And The Ecologist. Peter shares: ‘Gregory Bateson told us the [00:04:00] most important task is to learn to think in new ways. I would add, we need not just new ways to think, but whole new ways to be a modern human.’
[00:04:10]So today we’re going to be talking about their collaboration because we share their work at the beginning of the Haumea ecoliteracy course. I’ve been reading about Peter’s work in the magazine Resurgence since the late nineties, when a friend’s mother in New Zealand said you should read Resurgence if you’re interested in art and ecology. So I’ve known Peter’s mind for a very long time and then met him in more recent years, particularly for my doctoral work when I was looking at action research, to describe long-term multi faceted, ecological art practices. Peter has been a leader in that field for many decades.
[00:04:48] So, thank you so much, Peter and Sarah for being with us today.
[00:04:52] And Nikos, if you’re ready, I’d love for you to start this conversation between us all.
[00:04:59] [00:05:00]Nikos Patedakis: [00:05:00] There’s so many juicy places to begin, even in these rich biographies, the things that you both have been doing, and I have this sense that even though there isn’t, an avert mentioned of a philosophical strain, Sarah, in the blogs that I’ve read, there is still this impulse that you were getting from the poets. I even hear like the hint of Dogan in letting the 10,000 things come.
[00:05:27] I wondered if you might share the story though, that you tell in one of your blog posts about how the moths came to you and that kind of turn that you were experiencing in yourself, a call to attend.
[00:05:42]Sarah Gillespie: [00:05:42] It’s very hard to pinpoint the beginning of that story, but I’ll do my best
[00:05:49] I think like all things that call wouldn’t have come, if I wasn’t already dissatisfied with where things were in the art world, how I saw the art world and how I felt [00:06:00] myself functioning in it. So there was a level of dissatisfaction.
[00:06:03] I think if I’d been contentedly functioning with my art and art world, I wouldn’t have been open to hear this call. So, I was increasingly finding the arts that I saw around me being made and sold. And we now call it an art market. In fact, it’s not even called the art world anymore- it’s the art market, and I was feeling and unable to articulate a sense of, a sense that it was all incredibly narcissistic or much of it, let’s put it that way, much of it was narcissistic. Much of it was self-referential, much of it was a conversation that we were just continuously having with ourselves as humans and often worse than that, individual artists just with themselves. And that seemed to be good enough, in its own- this is me, my life, my trauma, therefore, I can just keep on endlessly spinning it.
[00:06:50]And then, I’d always been interested in moths and not known how to portray them. I’d always noticed them and they’d been around and I’d done some [00:07:00] drawings, but wasn’t really terribly contented with the drawings that I’d made.
[00:07:04]And it just took a very long time… But in the spring of 2019, when the first London Xtinction [Rebellion] happened, I had a show in Mayfair in London, and I had considerable resistance from my gallery to frame the whole exhibition in the context of the ecological crisis – there were moth images in that. I was meeting quite considerable resistance and when the rebellion kicked off with XR, they shut the gallery.
[00:07:29] And I had wanted do things like title the exhibition from ”A Letter to the Earth’ that Peter had written, which ended with this line that still makes me cry when I hear it, which is: “Dear Earth, I couldn’t live without you”. The gallery had rejected that as a title. They’re a good gallery, but their line was you’re going to frighten the horses. You’ll frighten the punters. You’ll frighten the buyers with this stuff. Halfway through XR, the rebellion, which if you remember it went on for two, three weeks and was enormous, it was happening, literally, right outside the gallery. They reopened the gallery [00:08:00] with me and other people saying that -this is not something for you to be frightened of- this is a nonviolent thing that’s happening, and we’re in context. And now can we try again? And they finally wrote the title on the window halfway through the show.
[00:08:13] I’m telling you this long-winded story, these things collided. And I found, for whatever reason my personality couldn’t deal with the whole business of mass protest and I’ve done it as a younger person, but it wasn’t for me. And I live in a very rural place- I …just… was quite stuck. My sister was putting me under quite a lot of pressure to get involved. I knew I couldn’t do that. I didn’t know how to go with this. And I was quite stuck and quite unsure how to proceed and very unhappy. So all of that is the context.
[00:08:44]And then what happened, it’s best put by a Pablo Neruda poem. He describes, beautifully, in one of his poems, how he was in the bar in Spain, and poetry calls him out into the night.
[00:08:57]Nikos Patedakis: [00:08:57] It’s a wonderful poem: ‘it was at that age, [00:09:00] poetry arrived in search of me’. Yes.
[00:09:02] Sarah Gillespie: [00:09:02] ‘Poetry arrived in search of me’:… I find these things hard to say- those moths came at a time when I was stuck in the art world , and they came and sought me out. I didn’t go looking for moths- I’m not an entomologist or a biologist. They just became so pressing, such a pressing thing. And then it just was a short step to thinking, my route is to pay attention. They’re pressing at the window. They’ve come for me. So I just started to pay attention. And then beyond that, it was all research led. As soon as you start to pay attention, as soon as you start to look, with honor, and respect, and care, and then read obviously, because there’s a wealth of information out there. It just went, and I left the gallery that I was with in London, and I just did this. I’ve done it for two years now. So I thought I was going to do it for a few months.
[00:09:52] I can’t describe to you what an extraordinary experience it’s been to pay focussed loving attention. I’m not a [00:10:00] scientist. The amazing thing is that people who are scientists who are experts have been so generous, they’ve responded too, they just opened up. I know, Twitter and things like that: I write and if I ask one of them and I just say, ‘Hey, what do you know about this? Or do you know what this is?’ And you get answers and more information. And have you seen this?
[00:10:19]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:10:19] That’s wonderful Sarah and I was just chatting with Nikos earlier and it’s almost like artists in service of the wider community of life. I too, Sarah, had felt despair at the inward lookingness of the art world, for so long. I resonated with Susie Gablik’s writings in the late nineties. I remember showing that to another student at art college, but for some reason, our art tutors didn’t share her writings with us.
[00:10:47] I think it was almost too big of a conceptual jump to think about the living world and I’ve carrying this for a long time, Sarah, [be]cause I’m the past scientist , not an insect person – [00:11:00] I come from the world of microbiology and bacteria . And then I worked with leading NGO here that have been trying to promote permanent forestry, In Ireland with, native trees.
[00:11:09]I recognise that shared experience that we’ve had, but it wasn’t that amazing that your work was right on the scene of Xtinction Rebellion and that resistance from the gallery. That’s extraordinary.
[00:11:22] Sarah Gillespie: [00:11:22] It was extraordinary – the moth project was called out by the moths. If you’d that was where it came from. And that was amazing. But there is an issue, if we’re going to say to artists and makers and poets, ‘Hey, we need to respond to this crisis, we need to be doing something’.. .
[00:11:39] I’ve had young artists say to me, “I just like the feel of pouring paint around”. You go- “What do your external influences?” And they go: “Nope. I just liked the feel of it” or work which was entirely into human.
[00:11:51]What are we asking for from people – with everybody painting nature pictures all the time? That’s a problem in its own, right. It’s a really [00:12:00] challenging, really difficult, how you go forward as an artist, without being prescriptive . Yeah. I’m running out of words.
[00:12:08] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:12:08] I was just going to say that’s what our course is about and I’m just so blessed to have Nikos as a philosopher working with me because it is a really tricky thing to invite and open up the realities to the creative sector. And then to advise, without being prescriptive and protecting them from overwhelm, being burnt out, feeling isolated, and then exactly what you’re saying, Sarah, that so much of the art community doesn’t have this awareness or language. So I think we’re just at the beginning of this, in particular I’m aware with Peter, that the conversation about art and ecology in the Arts Council England has been going on for a good decade- that’s only just starting here in Ireland. Even getting away from the art world in Ireland, ecologists would say we’re about a decade or so behind in our environmental awareness in the general public. This [00:13:00] lack of literacy that we have with the living world is astonishing.
[00:13:04]Perhaps Peter, you could share how your collaboration with Sarah started. That’s, the other thing I love, the intergenerational coming together as a shared project through two different creative practices.
[00:13:18]Peter Reason: [00:13:18] I think our collaboration started way back in 19…
[00:13:21] Sarah Gillespie: [00:13:21] When I was born.
[00:13:22] Peter Reason: [00:13:22] We’ve been very close all lives really wonderful. I think Sarah. Yes.
[00:13:29] Sarah Gillespie: [00:13:29] Yes, absolutely. I’m just thinking I was born the year after that Rachel Carson book – I’m 63.
[00:13:36]Peter Reason: [00:13:36] We’ve just been talking about writing and Buddhism and nature and Daoism, and Sarah has been sending me books and I’ve been sending her stuff. And that kind of conversation has been going on and when we began to talk, I was interested in, having published several books that people say are wonderful, but I’ve never sold very well, I was interested in doing something a bit [00:14:00] different, and doing something with some short pieces that were linked to artistic work or images. And we started talking about that and that was when we began to think about the idea of ‘presence’ and began then to focus on the question that Sarah raised first of all: ‘What’s the place of art in a time of catastrophe?’, which was the title of the essay we wrote in that piece.
[00:14:25]That’s where we started talking. But I think what’s happened is that when I hear Sarah talking about her work, it was a story she told me about stopping on a bridge and attending to a tree and the kind of detailed attention that she gives it, feeling that the tree became a presence for her more than just an object in the world, but a presence.
[00:14:46] And of course, that relates to the Thomas Berry quote that I put in the front of Spindrift we’re only talking to ourselves, we’re not talking to the trees, to the rivers.
[00:14:55]Now at the same side of this, I have been working with what I call it a [00:15:00] participatory worldview since I started writing about action research since my PhD.
[00:15:04] So this is a long story, but more recently I’ve got deeply influenced by panpsychism and particularly Professor Freya Matthews, an Australian philosopher. And in panpsychism, the idea is that mind or sentience is an essential aspect of matter and matter as an essential aspect of mind or sentience.
[00:15:28] In other words, the world from the very beginning, the cosmos is a living being, which differentiates itself out into you and I and animals and trees and rivers and whatever. But not only that it differentiates itself, but this world is there for us to communicate with. It has a presence for us, which is open to invocation if we so choose to listen. And so that begins in On Presence and has been developing in my mind in [00:16:00] the way we’ve been talking over this last year from our different perspectives.
[00:16:05]When Sarah talks about the moths calling to her, I see that as a communication from the world and with the panpsychic worldview, I’m no longer seeing that as a kind of a New Agey kind of notion. I’m seeing it as part of an articulated trend in Western philosophy, which obviously has echoes in indigenous worldviews, which is often been under trodden, but it’s coming back in our time. There’s been some really important books, recently, popular books, as well as academic books around the panpsychic worldview.
[00:16:40] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:16:40] What are a few of those titles? Peter, for our listeners.
[00:16:43]Peter Reason: [00:16:43] There’s one called Galileo’s Era by Philip Goff, which is very accessible but you really need to go to Freya Matthew’s website and read some of the papers that are there to get this sense of her point of view… much of the argument about panpsychism comes [00:17:00] from the perspective of consciousness. So it comes from the perspective of, let me over- egg it a little bit: ‘given that the world is all dead, isn’t it remarkable that we’ve got human consciousness?’
[00:17:11] Where did that come from? That’s a little hamming it up a bit, whereas Freya starts from and , I start from an ecophilosophy point of view saying, how do we understand the world and the human place in it? How do we understand the cosmos and her arguments are, we can only understand it, as a totally intimate intertwining of mind and matter, they are not even twin aspects of each other. They are the same thing…
[00:17:37]Sarah Gillespie: [00:17:37] And if you want to know about the collaborative thing, I think it’s thanks to Peter being able to articulate it that clearly. The fact that I happened to have an uncle that can say it that clearly, means I have a sense of what’s happening- that I can respond. Peter gives it a language in which to think about it. It’s so hard as an artist to think clearly, to start to be able to think about it.
[00:17:59]Peter Reason: [00:17:59] There’s [00:18:00] another link because I’ve been alongside artists going through art school recently. And a lot of what the theory is, they will have to have theory these days. And a lot of it is deconstructive theory and all that postmodern stuff, which doesn’t actually help very much. But what the panpsychic world is very strongly linked to- is the poetics of the world. So the world speaks to us and the world speaks for us, not in human language- unless we are Australian aboriginals- in which case languages and human languages is to country’s language, which is a wonderful thought… but the world doesn’t speak to us or the trees speak to us in a language of things. They speak to us in gestures, in physical moves, in coincidences, in synchronicities, and obviously from a materialist point of view, you can just say that’s all just New Age nonsense, but I believe if you begin to examine it, carefully and closely, it is the calling of the World to us, in different kinds of ways. [00:19:00]
[00:19:00]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:19:00] Would you see it a necessary re-enchantment of being in the world.
[00:19:04] Peter Reason: [00:19:04] Absolutely. Absolutely. Re-enchantment is the word – the world becomes alive again. I was going to say we fall in love with it, which shows us the other issue. I’m interested in the problem with language. Robin Wall Kimmerer and her wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass, but more recently she’s written an article in Orion where she takes us to task for referring to beings in the world using the pronoun ‘it’, and suggests we should use ‘ki’, which she derives in a rather roundabout way from her own first nations language. It’s actually quite tricky to do from a stylistic point of view, but she talks about ‘ki’ and ‘kin’. So I’m beginning to experiment with that as well.
[00:19:46]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:19:46] We talk about her work in the course and I in a reading group rereading Braiding SweetGrass. I try an give an example because I tend a monoculture tree plantation, and I thin it periodically and let [00:20:00] native trees come up. And I found that Peter, when I was trying to write about it in a more ecological sense, stumbling and trying to move away from ‘this is my forest or our forest’ to thinking about ‘this is the forest I live with‘. It’s my attempt to try and recognize that I’m living with something and I’m getting gifts back: oxygen, firewood at times, birdsong and so forth, but it shows the depth of the cultural change that we’re advancing upon…
[00:20:30]Peter Reason: [00:20:30] I can remember in the early days of second wave feminism and we were being taken to task for using words like ‘chairman’ and ‘manhole’, we thought what do you call one of those metal things or, we were getting told about ‘manning’ the desk and you know what else you’re supposed to say? We’ve got used to saying, we’re going to ‘staff the stall’. We’ve got used to talking about ‘ inspection hatches’ rather than ‘manholes’. We got used to seeing women bus drivers. We CIS people are beginning to get used to talking to [00:21:00] transgender people with the pronouns they want to use, even though it’s awkward for us, we slip up quite often, I slip up quite often.
[00:21:07] So if we make the effort to talk in a new poetics, and I think, again, that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to put the images together with the writing, not as illustrations or articulations, they’re not trying to be literal in that sense- they’re trying to evoke each other. And also that comes to the ideas that we tried to express in our joint essays.
[00:21:30] Nikos Patedakis: [00:21:30] I just wanted to note that we’re talking about having philosophy present as guiding the artist. And the question is whether it’s going to be skillful and realistic philosophy or not. We have an enchantment, it’s just, we haven’t enchantment with iPhones and so on. The enchantment is going to be there and the cosmogram or the image of the cosmos we’re going to have is going to be there. As Bateson also noted, even our science says we don’t live in a Newtonian machine. So if your objections, which tend to come from that, [00:22:00] it shows that they have deep unconscious dimensions, but our objections to this different view in part, come from an outdated worldview that we haven’t metabolized . It’s very interesting that we still have to do the philosophical work of putting ourselves in a world, which then allows not only the artist, but also the viewer to be responsive in a different way, because it’s not as if the viewers don’t need a practice of attention too, and being willing to open to the presence, which of course the striking images that you’re making can stop the mind, a bit. You felt the presence of this tree and maybe that was an initial calling. Do you Peter feel the ocean calling to you and the ocean having presence? Or does it come from many places, I wonder, but I know that’s one of the places that you’ve worked?
[00:22:44]Peter Reason: [00:22:44] Yes. There’s some stories, that are in our new booklet. I suppose the most dramatic thing that’s happened to me recently is we started working with rivers. And I’ve been teaching in California Institute for Integral Studies and we [00:23:00] started a little pre-work in a conversation with rivers and just the two of us with my teaching assistant and I, Jacquelyn. We’d only just started this when I got a call from an academic in Australia who works with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous communities, and the invitation was to contribute to a special issue of a journal called ‘Voicing Rivers’! So suddenly, it felt like we were being invited by rivers around the world- you can say that was a coincidence, or you can say, Oh, maybe we’re being invited to be part of a community articulating the needs, the perspective of rivers. Yeah. It depends how you see these things.
[00:23:40] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:23:40] Yeah.
[00:23:41] Sarah Gillespie: [00:23:41] I just want to just come in here as well. You can choose to turn that invitation down. I think these things grow. I think I want to say that Peter could have chosen to, maybe not take up that invitation or do one thing. And I could have made one or two pieces about [00:24:00] moths, or I could have just walked off and we can go back to the story of the tree on the bridge. But I think the work, when you’re an artist or a writer- let’s call us all poets or call us all artists- becomes something like that. I hate that term ‘feedback loop’, but the more you attend, the more you give your time and attention, it just comes back the other way with equal force. So there isn’t really a beginning or it’s very hard to pinpoint the beginning. So I don’t know whether the sea called to you Peter- you’ve always sailed? But the more you pay attention when you’re out there to what’s happening the more comes from it. It’s remarkable like that..
[00:24:38] Nikos Patedakis: [00:24:38] But there’s two sides, right? Because on the one hand, we’re talking about synchronicity and that different view. I don’t know if Peter, you’ve looked at Wolfgang Paulie’s collaborations with Jung, but one of the things that Paulie noted was as consciousness opens, the synchronicities increase, so he felt that it was correlated. But the other thing that’s interesting is you say you could turn it down, but it seems to be that there’s a cost to that. [00:25:00] It’s like a wounding to the soul to ignore something that has called- you don’t get off the hook. You’re playing the part of Odysseus who doesn’t want to go on the adventure and, the adventure is going to find you. And the question is, if we keep ignoring the soul, what happens to the world? If they’re intertwined, if they’re not two things..
[00:25:17]Peter Reason: [00:25:17] I’ve quite enjoyed the adventure. Yes, just going back to my sailing experiences, what I wrote about in the two books, because I’m pretty mad about water. but I started sailing seriously as a father of two boys and under the influence of Bly and the men’s movement response to the women’s movement, we went out adventuring together. And that happened for quite a long time, but then increasingly, my eldest son was doing fine art and he was saying things like, have you seen the light on the water over there? We’ve watched the stars reflecting in the middle of the channel on a completely calm night, which is extraordinary. And gradually, and that kind of thing shifted so when the boys grew up and didn’t want to come sailing with me so much anymore, I [00:26:00] went off on my own and then. And the sea does begin to speak or more to start with, I found my sense of the difference between me and the sea dissolving. And that was the first experience. So in, in my two books, I write about times when that boundary seems to disappear. And it’s more recently under Freya Matthew’s influence that I’ve seen, and talking to Sarah, that link between her sense of attention and the tree opening up, or the moths battering -that there is also this communicative response. And that’s what I am experimenting with or exploring at the moment.
[00:26:40] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:26:40] And this is coming to fruition in your new collaborative work called On Sentience, is it?
[00:26:48] Peter Reason: [00:26:48] Yeah. In a way. Yes.
[00:26:51]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:26:51] Can you share a little bit more about your new work?
[00:26:56]Peter Reason: [00:26:56] It’s the same form, a little booklet, it’s grown a [00:27:00] bit, I think. And it has , three essays, three little , bits of nature writing, which are examples of this kind of time when the world somehow speaks to us. So those are similar and those are interspersed with Sarah drawings, as before, not in an illustrative way, but in a dialogue really. And then as an essay which started when Sarah took me off to the National Gallery and we stood in front of Fra. Lippes Annunciation for about an hour while she explained why it was so important.
[00:27:35] Sarah Gillespie: [00:27:35] I didn’t explain it to you at all Peter, we had a nice chat.
[00:27:38]Peter Reason: [00:27:39] Out of that comes an articulation of certainly Sarah’s vision of where inspiration comes from. So that was..
[00:27:49] Sarah Gillespie: [00:27:49] We shouldn’t spoil that one – that’s coming, that’s coming…
[00:27:54]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:27:54] I look forward to reading it and looking at it and sharing it with others over the side of the water. Fantastic.
[00:28:00] [00:28:00] Peter Reason: [00:28:00] Yeah.
[00:28:01] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:28:01] Yeah. And I met Freya briefly many years ago. She wouldn’t remember me, cause I was just at the beginning of my doctoral research, but I was on my way home, back to New Zealand and I got a little bit of funding to present for the first time at an international conference. I was beyond nervous, but I do remember Freya opening the conference, after the indigenous elder came and welcomed us all to country, which I find very powerful in my part of the world- I come from Aotearoa New Zealand. This thanksgiving and recognition of the lands and waters where events and gatherings take place.
[00:28:38]But having the scientific awareness of how badly things have been going for the living world, I was profoundly moved by Freya’s presentation because she broke down. She broke down with the grief, in a very public forum. I thought my goodness there’s something, something about this topic that is, very challenging. It’s very [00:29:00] moving. And I met you some years later, Peter, at the celebration of Thomas Berry’s essay of the ‘New Story’ at Findhorn. And that was a gathering of over 300 people from around the world, indigenous, young people, older people, so many different groups of people, working in tech, all with something to offer about how do we create a better world? And again, I was reminded how difficult this area was. And even when I came to collaborate with Nikos, this idea of how do we protect ourselves as creative people from the overwhelm- is tricky work, but I think what I see between both of you, is you’ve got your network there- you’re supporting each other.
[00:29:45] Peter Reason: [00:29:46] The thing that’s coming to my mind, I want to talk about practice. Yes, because our practices are not the same, they’re different, that’s one thing. But also one of the important things that I’m learning is it’s not [00:30:00] just a question of having the ideas. It’s all right to be able to think philosophically, but to think philosophically already separates us from the world because we’re paying attention to the ideas rather than the practice.
[00:30:11] I’ve just reviewed a brilliant little book by Rebecca Tamas about humans. Human and non-human, but it doesn’t actually get down and dirty with the more- than- human world in a way that I would want to. So actually getting out there, and Sarah can talk about her work, but they are different. We are actually doing things- we’re going and sitting in the mud next to rivers, we calling to the river, through invocation and ceremony – not just thinking about it, not just writing about it, but actually getting out there. In your practice, I think it’s really important Sarah to say something about that.
[00:30:49]Sarah Gillespie: [00:30:49] Peter’s right, absolutely right to bring it back to practice. I think I want to say something about repetition, and time. Peter, do you remember a conversation- we had met at Dartington for a few days and [00:31:00] you’ve we’re annoyed because the Oak trees just didn’t seem to respond at all. And we were laughing at ourselves thinking that in the life of a 600 year old Oak tree, if I stand there for 10 minutes and go- ‘speak to me, tell me something’! Even if I hug it, why on Earth woud it respond? So I want to say something about commitment and repetition and place and maybe making our worlds, paradoxically or counter-intuitively, a little smaller in order to pay attention. If we just get to know one path or one river, that feels like that’s not enough because we are in a world where everything seems possible and available. This is somewhere where Peter and I slightly differ- Peter is comfortable with ceremony and implication… I’m not- my practice involves paying attention through the form of drawing. And what I found is that there’s something in the drawing, as one’s hands are very occupied, it stills some part of your brain and something happens, which all those concerns, all that internal self [00:32:00] concern drops away through the hands being busy. It’s very hard to explain because your hands are busy and your hands are not busy with yourself- you’re busy trying to just say something, and after two or three hours, which in the life of a poplar tree, of course is nothing, there is less separation between you and that poplar tree. You can feel in some way that the water and the carbon and the things that are in me and that are in the tree are as one. And then there is what David Hinton calls a shimmering or rustling in the universe. You can actually feel that without the barriers of interruptions and self concern . And then I think where I follow along behind Peter and learning is I’ve been drawing and drawing, and I’ve been there a good couple of hours and there were lovely things- there were swallows and it was a bit rainy and the tree was very graceful and the drawing was, it was fully absorbed. And then as I stopped, when I finished drawing or had enough [00:33:00] or got achy or decided it does pass this thing, the tree shimmered all over. And of course, you can say Poplar trees do that. Their leaves are configured that they vibrate in a certain way, but this tree literally laughed. You can make nothing of that or you can take it and just say that’s nice. Thank you. That’s just glorious. There’s there’s me and there’s you. And there’s very little in between us.
[00:33:24]Nikos Patedakis: [00:33:24] You could say that the dowsers will sometimes say the reason you use the rods, is to give your hands something to do. [Yeah] Because if I can be conscious of the rods, Bateson would say, I can’t capture the larger ecology of mind that’s going to show me where the lost thing is. To find the lost things in the soul and the lost things in the soul of the world, practice quiets that part of us that couldn’t. And then, that ends up still being your ritual, right? A ceremony is different of course, because the ceremony means I have to do it the right way. But a ritual is just what I repeat if I’m doing it the same. It’s interesting though, because you see, [00:34:00] when I teach whether it’s artists or when I was teaching in the university and people will sometimes say drawings are mind meditation. I say, okay, but there’s something that’s not quite right, because so many artists engage in that and if this were enough, then we would know that artists were all sages. They’re doing this. Somehow there’s something where we have to have the intention, the philosophical framework- you have to be open. And then you have, the way Thich Nhat Hahn is always putting it, you have the right intention, you have mindfulness concentration, then insight will be there, the synchronicities will just begin to happen. But it’s interesting that there’s something more, right? It’s not just the practice, but some framework.
[00:34:36] Peter Reason: [00:34:36] So the intention in my work is to evoke the rivers, that’s what I’m working with mainly at the moment, the rivers as a living presence and by river, the whole river, not just the water flowing down it, but whatever the whole is. And the practice is partly to still the mind in different kinds of ways but also to physically make offerings. I made an offering [00:35:00] recently of water that I brought from the River Thames to the river Avon- I’m not quite sure why, but I did, having done all the other preparatory stuff, I began to pour it in. I didn’t like that for some reasons- I threw it across the river and I had this sort of response with this wonderful pattern of little waves. And then the little waves interfering with each other and the current of the river taking it all down. It was like a sort of naturalist piece of pop art.
[00:35:28] And after I did that these two swans appeared. And they did a particular piece of choreography in front of me, which again, you could have said it’s just two swans being two swans, but there was something which, something that felt intentional and something that took me completely by surprise. So yeah, in some ways it’s not different from what Sarah is doing, but in other ways it is rather different.
[00:35:52] Sarah Gillespie: [00:35:52] When that translates into work, just to explore this a bit further, when you then take that tiny little ephemeral experience that somehow [00:36:00] you in your inside know something’s happening there, you take that and you try to make a piece of writing or an artwork or a poem or a film or a piece of dance- what one is I suppose, hoping for, is that somebody else seeing that might not disregard a similar moment- should it happen to them. Not just walk past or disregard – that’s all – I think somebody called it answering grace, to see if you can make something that will arouse that in somebody else.
[00:36:29] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:36:30] Simply to raise that enchantment in other people for the living world that we are part of..
[00:36:37] Sarah Gillespie: [00:36:37] Is that too much to hope? We have to stop damaging things, we absolutely have to stop. It’s just a small, very small part of thinking. I think Peter and I both think if you’re doing that kind of work, it becomes very hard to damage things and harm things. And you just, hoping that you are allowing or encouraging or waking up or cracking open that possibly in somebody else. It is a communicative thing, art, isn’t it? You don’t just do it for your own selves. [00:37:00] I don’t do it for my own self- satisfaction…
[00:37:02] Nikos Patedakis: [00:37:02] I was just noticing that there seem to be two things at least there, because of course, the first thing that has to happen is the viewer’s mind has to be stopped, so before they can be open to the next experience there’s this possibility that they’re somehow entering the same experience that you were in, in the first place. Because the funny thing about communication is it still is the model of sending messages- so there are two things, but if they’re also not two things, then there’s something else that’s happening. The synchronicity is not a message in the ordinary sense because it defies, for instance, the temporal sequence that we rely on and the notion of separateness that we rely on, between my mind and your mind or something like that.
[00:37:44] It’s almost like there are two, there’s a funny thing with language that we want to call it communication and yet there’s communion and then there’s some kind of non-duality of unity and diversity that the presence is itself there.
[00:37:57] Peter Reason: [00:37:57] Yeah. And our world is so full of [00:38:00] duality, it goes right back to the Greeks. It goes right back to, probably to the beginnings of agriculture as we understand it in the West. And just very fundamentally that’s what we’re pushing against, and it’s what artists have pushed against in different kinds of ways. I was reading recently about the link between ecology and the romantics and Gregory Bateson talks some more about the dual themes within Western philosophy. There’s a kind of rational materialist kind of view that talks what are things made of? And there’s the other, which is what is the pattern, and the sort of the Gnostic and the romantics and the eco philosophical. And it keeps poking up above the thing and then disappearing. And it’s always there, never dominant and maybe never can be dominant, but always hopefully having some kind of influence.
[00:38:48]Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:38:48] I was thinking that I might ask you just to reflect on some advice for other creative people, or maybe you’d like to say what you hope coming [00:39:00] up in these very strange times that we’re living in.
[00:39:05]Sarah Gillespie: [00:39:05] I think I would struggle to presume to advise, but I would say read poetry. Go to the poets. I think quite often, when one feels that you know why, isn’t, why isn’t writing answering this question at the moment , the poets often are so ahead of us. That’d be one thing. Go outside every day. I read a really funny book about bird watching basically that this chap suggestion was that she found a place quite near to home that you could go to and sit still for 10 or 20 minutes every day. No where that you can make excuses not to go to. So it’s not going to be too far or too cold or on somebody’s land where you might get in trouble, and you go and you sit for 20 minutes every day. It’s actually called What the Robin Knows. It’s an American book.
[00:39:48] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:39:48] Thank you, Sarah. Peter, did you want to have some final words there?
[00:39:51] Peter Reason: [00:39:51] I’m very struck with all the different things that are involved in whatever we call it, changing the world. Let’s use that phrase for the moment. There are so many things – I’m [00:40:00] follow Joanna Macy who talks about, the work that is about stopping the devastation, stopping the destruction -like people are doing in England with HS to try to stop the cutting down on the truth. That important work. And then there’s the inventing new social systems and new economics and new forms of production and those kinds of things, and that’s important work. The first maybe getting up in trees and sitting in the street and the XR, and the second is what people like Kate Raworth do with our ‘donut’ economics. That’s all incredibly important.
[00:40:31]And there is another thing which is the transformation at a fundamental poetic and I think metaphysical level of our whole sense of who we are in the world. And I think there’s some link there between artists and poets and philosophers and practitioners, because I think it is also about, as Sarah says, experiential ways of experiencing the world differently, opening ourselves to that kind of space. And there’s many [00:41:00] ways of doing that.
[00:41:01] So don’t get caught in the dialogue between optimism and pessimism, which is people talking about ‘ Can we hope for a better world?’, -just get on with doing what you can with what you’ve got and where you are. And that’s as much as each one of us can hope to do.
[00:41:20] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:41:20] Thank you both so much Peter and Sarah, that’s really wonderful and Nikos for being here as well. Just a really rich conversation and I know people who come to us, looking for some guidance about how to be a creative in these troubled times- it’s so valuable to hear other people who have gone down this road as well. So that’s great.
[00:41:41] Peter Reason: [00:41:41] Thank you for asking.
[00:41:43] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:41:43] Thank you. Thank you very much.
[00:41:45] Sarah Gillespie: [00:41:45] Nikos it’s been fascinating to see it getting lighter and lighter behind you.
[00:41:50] Peter Reason: [00:41:50] Yeah.
[00:41:53] Nikos Patedakis: [00:41:53] Yeah, I know. Have a good day. All right, friends. Take care. [00:42:00] Bye-bye.
[00:42:00] Cathy Fitzgerald: [00:42:02] This interview was conducted in December, 2020. In January, 2021, Peter and Sarah published their second collaborative book with essays and drawings. It is called On Sentience. The book is firstname.lastname@example.org. And here’s a few words about it:
[00:42:21] ‘What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inanimate objects? How could we relate to such a world? And what then would art and creativity, be like? This is a world of communication and interaction of which trees, crows and rivers may grace us with a response to our attention and our call. Of course, we do not live in such a world, although modern culture tragically fails to acknowledge this. The writing and drawing in this booklet draw directly on our explicit and implicit adoption [00:43:00] of this perspective. If we open ourselves, if we call, the world will respond. The place of art is to foreground this perspective.
[00:43:12]In this new book, Peter has been regularly sitting with the River Avon in meditation, drawing on invocation and ceremony to address the River as a community of sentient beings: quote,” if I call to the world as a sentient being, what response may I receive?” Peter also crossed the North Atlantic in a classic sailing ketch continuing his quest for ‘moments of grace’ that he wrote about in his earlier books on sailing pilgrimages.
[00:43:45] Sarah makes paintings, drawings, and engravings that aspire to a quality that Japanese call Hosomi. Always giving primacy to the natural world Hosomi describes an emotional delicacy attention and [00:44:00] determination to overlook nothing. The practice requires an emptying of the self. A stepping aside, a degree of modesty in order to make something more like a mirror or a lens of oneself, the better to reflect the subtler depths of beauty we are so often blind to.
[00:44:20]You’ll be able to purchase a copy of these wonderful books through Peter Reason’s website. PeterReason.net
[00:44:28] Thanks everybody for listening and looking forward to sharing the next Haumea ecocultural podcast.
[00:44:36]You can subscribe to this and other episodes on your podcast provider and see more at Haumea.ie.
Recorded and edited by Cathy Fitzgerald
Artwork: Haumea as Wisdom, Love and Beauty by Mary Carty 2020
Soundtrack: Fragments – AERØHEAD https://soundcloud.com/aerohead Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported — CC BY-SA 3.0 Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/al-fragments Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/O7PzeUTESAA
Cathy Fitzgerald All Rights Reserved 2021
Explicit / Not Explicit