The present is haunted by the mythic ghost of the paleolithic wilderness

trees blocking out the sky

Photograph by the author

Do you ever have one of those moments where you realise that a number of seemingly disparate things you are reading, watching, or pondering are actually all connected and swirling around a central core concept? It’s disconcerting but intensely interesting.

So this blog post isn’t directly about Art, but rather Nature. Which is, theoretically, the complete opposite of art - the word Art comes from the same root as artificial, the opposite of natural. But it all seems to touch on myth, which is a major theme of my recent artwork.

Let me give you my starting points so that you can get your bearings:

Roberts’ review of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is in two parts - the first part is a very good review of the trilogy, and the second part explores VanderMeer’s theme of our relationship with the natural world in fascinating detail. Here’s a mere snippet:

To present a fairly crude reduction of a very long and complication discursive history, we could say that one valorized iteration of "nature"—wilderness nature, the state in which the world exists when men and women don't interfere with it by cutting it down, concreting it over and so on—is a Romantic and a post-Romantic invention. Since life preceded humanity on this planet of ours by billennia, this might look like a foolish thing to assert. Surely (you could say) "wilderness" is the default setting of the natural world, something into which homo sapiens has blundered very late in the game. That's as may be; but I'm talking not about brute reality but about the value discourse of the natural world. This latter is both deeply embedded in (for instance) contemporary environmentalism (in the sense that some forms of nature are taken to be "better" or "worse" than others—pristine national parks are better than chemically polluted factoryside lakes, for example)—and a profoundly humanocentric state of affairs.

Roberts’ own latest novel, Bête, apparently also concerns itself with our relationship with the natural world, so I’ve just bought and downloaded it to the virtual pile of books on my bedside table.

Amongst those books is Martin Shaw’s A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness, which I’ve been dipping in and out of at opportune moments. It is a journey through both myth and wilderness, climate change and ecology, and at the centre of it all, the human relationship with wilderness. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it was cited a couple of times by writer Warren Ellis, which brings me neatly round to this:

Warren Ellis started a recent blog post entitled The Polite Landscape with the words:

I was thinking about cave lions. These were British lions that were the size of a car, that haunted Britain ten thousand years ago. And by haunted, I mean the myth of the British lion extends into Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden. And by myth I mean the persistent story of a wild British countryside.

And in some respects it seems like Warren Ellis, in a few short sentences, has just invented Extreme Hauntology, where the present is haunted by the mythic ghost of the paleolithic wilderness.

I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here: please don’t start using the phrase “Extreme Hauntology”.

All this—for me, anyway—ties in with the late Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood cycle of novels, where mythic archetypes bleed through to the present from the unconscious - usually mythic characters, but also certain types of animals, trees, forests, and even entire landscapes appear as mythagos haunting the present day within Ryhope Wood. In one related novel, Ancient Echoes, the landscape of Britain is haunted by the mythic ghost of the first city of Glanum/Jericho.

A few weeks ago we went to visit the archaeological dig up on Whitehawk in Brighton. The shadows of the ditches and banks of the 5500-year-old Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure are even now faintly visible in the grass on a section of the neighbouring Brighton Race Course, an almost invisible apparition of a neolithic landscape (until the archaeologist leading the tour of the site pointed them out to us).

And this in turn started me re-imagining popular archaeology shows like Channel 4’s Time Team from an almost Scarfolkian perspective: Landscape Archaeologists are those who can see the ghosts of past landscapes haunting the present landscape; the Geophysical Surveyors use strange cartographic machines to make maps of ghosts of past landscapes hidden under the ground.

But even these hidden landscapes are artificial, the remnants—or perhaps revenants—of earlier human intrusions on the landscape, they cannot detect true “wilderness”, the ghost of the wild British countryside.

Warren Ellis ends his blog post:

It’s a small island, heavily managed for many thousands of years, and nature long ago became a story we tell ourselves while we tramp down footpaths and national trails on the powdered bones of giant lions.

Which brings me round to George Monbiot’s rewilding campaigning. Is rewilding an attempt to build a new present from a myth, “a story we tell ourselves” about nature? Nearly fifty years ago the slogan for change was sous les pavés, la plage! Now it could be sous les pavés, la région sauvage!

(There is no easy translation of the English word “wilderness” with its connotation of “wild landscape untouched by humans” into French, so my French-speaking internet friends tell me. La région sauvage or la étendue sauvage is apparently the closest you can get.)

What is clear to me is that there is a wider paradigm that is emerging in certain quarters of the collective cultural consciousness that incorporates all these new perspectives on wilderness and our relationship to it.

I think that rewilding is based on sound principles and is a good thing, even a necessary thing. And I can’t help thinking that this new perspective on wilderness is one factor that is helping to drive it onwards. Which is also a good thing. As Monbiot says, rewilding is “part of a wider effort to develop a positive environmentalism, which we desperately need”.

Adam Roberts says in his review of VanderMeer’s trilogy:

The more interesting question is whether there’s something in the water that is informing speculative writing today. Maybe “Nature” in this sense is the coming thing. A kind of Macfarlanization of the Science Fictional idiom.

I think it’s much wider than the latest SF theme - it’s just that speculative fiction such as SF seems more ready to explore any new paradigm before other cultural media. I think this is a new way of thinking that is just starting to permeate various different media and disciplines.

We’ve already mentioned SF and environmentalism, and now we have Roberts’ coining of the word Macfarlanization. Robert Macfarlane is certainly an early influence on this whole thing as well. I recently finished reading Macfarlane’s book Holloway as part of some research for a forthcoming series of artwork which will include those ancient sunken lanes known as Hollow Ways or Holloways. I have Macfarlane’s The Old Ways and The Wild Places on my virtual reading pile (my reading pile is a virtual tower) and I suspect the latter book will be another key piece in this jigsaw.

I have no conclusions as yet. These are starting points for future investigation. Your contributions are, as always, welcome.

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.