Archive for the ‘Uncategorised’ Category

Educating Managers for Sustainability

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Management and Leadership

Much time is spent taking people in positions of power and trying to train them to be leaders when we should be finding the leaders inside our organizations and training them to be managers.  Anyone within an organization has the potential to become a leader, but all managers must be leaders.  A manager is someone who directs others to follow a plan in order to meet speific, measurable objectives A plan provides principles for taking action and directions for achieving goals.  Managers, at any level, have a vision of what  has to be achieved and produce a plan to manage the challenges that limit the realisation of the vision.  The role of a plan is to guide the direction, alignment, and commitment needed to reach the plan’s targets  

Challenges are factors limiting the execution of a plan.  They fall into four broad categories that require leadership  aimed at:

  • leading change by forecasting shifts within the business environment that will bring increased complexity and new tensions to the organization as it develops.
  • shaping culture to create a social group that elicits strong identification and a sense of belonging.
  • leveraging polarities that may appear to be diametrically opposed, avoiding a dualistic, “either/or” approach to proceed with an holistic “both/and” solutions.
  • spanning boundaries in order to facilitate interdependent decision-making and co production across specialist divisions.

These challenges define organisations as complex adaptive systems operating within a wider arena of complex adaptive systems.  

Modern leaders have the task of interpreting how their organisation is to be sustainable, an extraordinary demand on leaders. Hence, leadership for sustainability requires leaders of extraordinary abilities. These are leaders who can  discern routes through complexity, think through complicated problems, engage groups in dynamic adaptive organisational change and have the emotional intelligence to engage with their own emotions in complex problem solving.

Fig 1 The CCL general model of leadership through management

Leadership through management planning is therefore a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal.  Leadership stems from individuals, not authority or power, and requires others, so there are many styles and many paths to effective leadership.  Particularly in the context of sustainable development the common element is to avoid or overcome dualistic thinking.

The key to successful leadership for sustainability is being able to bridge cultural divides by avoiding dualistic thinking because it is a divisive force in the human project.  In particular, dualistic thinking  can so easily separate humanity from nature, men from women and the rich from the poor.  

Dualism is a simplistic concept that all issues can be divided into either/or states, such as good/bad, right/wrong, determinable/indeterminable. Dualism does not recognize a continuum of values, such as a stretch of varying shades of grey between black and white and cannot explain complexity.  Its opposite is holism. Holism is the belief that everything in nature is connected in some way and promotes education in systems thinking to unravel complexity and make connections across divides.

As well as being holistic systems thinkers, leaders also have to be sharp planners.  Whether you are trying to lead other people or lead yourself, the planning logic of dealing with obstacles is very much the same. You still have to cope with all the variables in the environment, temptations pushing you away from your objective, motivation issues, self-discipline issues and just plain resource barriers to making progress. It is commonly said that leaders tend to be superior planners but inferior doers. However, you cannot be a good doer without planning how to remove obstacles that are preventing you reaching your objectives.  Leaders at any level have to look for ways to remove or overcome obstacles. They also want feedback on progression to their objectives. Therefore, to play an active part in implementing a plan, leaders have to be understand the logic of making plans.  

We classify plans as being strategic or operational.  Yet there is no difference in the logic used to make a strategic plan or an operational/tactical plan because there has to be a seamless coupling from vision to grass roots action.   All plans are management plans because they allow those involved to step back from the current situation and clearly see where they are drifting off course.  Leaders require a deep understanding that planning should bridge the gap between strategy design and tactical delivery,  In other words, leadership is a multilevel process that spirals down and around the entire organization. The tactics of one level become the planning challenges of the next.  From this point of view the planning system, as a technical instrument, has to make the entire planning/reporting system seamless and provide opportunities for its interrogation at any level.

Dualism and Holism

Education is not simply the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next through classrooms, books, and lectures. Holistic education is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion, altruism  and peace. Holism transforms education to become a non compartmented universal process by which each of us and society as a whole engages reason and imagination in a dynamic system from the past in order to adopt values for living harmoniously in the future.  The task is to analyse the horrific failures of the human project throughout the past and present, and explore values for a future beyond war, poverty, injustice, and oppression. Dualistic thinking that separates men from women, humans from nature, poor from rich can and should be replaced with a fuller picture of the psychology of human identity and the interdependence of culture and ecology.   If the implications of this scientific revolution and the new paradigm of holistic thinking it produces are taken seriously, holism should become the dominating concept in all our day to day thinking.  Holism is revolutionary; the source of our gigantic hope for a transformed future, for the emergence of new goals for human existence on Earth.  The educational objective is to contribute to a transformed future where the economy of humankind is eventually maintained as a steady state equilibrium with our planet’s productivity. We are on the verge of the ultimate holistic level of existence where we see a world in danger of geo-political collapse as a result of adopting short term management of humanity’s natural capital. The next altruistic level seeks spirituality and unity in living systems; strives to eliminate war, poverty, disease, hunger and political oppression; recognises the potential need to sacrifice self and others as may be required for the overall survival of life; thinks and acts globally.

For this to happen we must be aware that;

  • we are a part of nature in everything we do and we cannot take from Earth more than the planet can regenerate;
  • an economy permanently subsidised by the exploitation of women’s work is dysfunctional;
  • eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for global sustainable development.

Steady State Economics

A steady-state economy is an economy made up of a constant stock of physical wealth and a constant population size. In effect, such an economy does not grow. The term steady state economy typically refers to the national economy of a particular country, but it is also applicable to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire world. Early in the history of economic thought, classical economist Adam Smith of the 18th century theorised on the concept of a stationary state of an economy. Smith conjectured that any national economy in the world would sooner or later settle in a final stationary state.  The time it will take to arrive depends on how long it takes to realise that the depletion of natural resources is imminent,

There are four main concepts or pillars of the steady state economy:

  • Sustainable Scale: Creating an economy that can maintain its production and consumption on a level at or below the Earth’s ability to renew resources and absorb waste. It’s simply making the economy sustainable.
  • Fair Distribution: A steady state economy must not simply be sustainable from a biophysical standpoint, but also from a social standpoint. Creating the means to allow everyone the capacity to flourish is drastically important to a secure, stable and prosperous economy.
  • Efficient Allocation: The more efficient our economy functions the better use of resources and time we can allocate. As with any economy, the market is not perfect and we must take into account the externalities that harm our society’s ability to use resources wisely and efficiently.
  • High Quality of Life: What is the true purpose of creating a society and economy if not to give us a high quality of life? In a steady state economy this is not a weak side effect of the economy but an actual goal and purpose of the economy. When we stop focusing on growth we can focus on making our lives better, for everyone.

To move toward cultural sustainability it is imperative to regain a broader understanding of economics. Three principles are identified as essential for this conceptual expansion of economics. They are:

  • think in concrete terms rather than in the abstract;
  • work towards connectedness rather than isolation;
  • and aim for diversity rather than homogeneity.

All three principles are informed by feminist theory. Thus, it is argued that the voices of women who have gone largely unheard in economics are essential to reconceptualizing economics as sustainable.  

The focus on sustainability as the guiding principle for future economic activity has generated many, and often conflicting. definitions of sustainable economic development. Yet while the terminology may be new, the discussion is not. It parallels the discussion about biases of economic valuation that have long ago led to the neglect of the domestic and subsistence contributions relegated to the “informal” or household sector.

Feminist Economics

The three pillars of sustainable development — economic, environmental and social — are also relevant to discussions of gender equality as a factor impeding the implementation of strategies for sustainable development at all levels,   In particular, an increasing number of studies indicate that gender inequalities are extracting high economic costs and leading to social inequities and environmental degradation around the developing world.  Therefore, a new economic model for living sustainably must be gender neutral and incorporate feminist steady state economics.

Feminist economics is the study of economics including its methodology, history and empirical research aimed at attempting to overcome male biases. It focuses on topics of particular relevance to women that involve the exclusion of women from contributing to organisational innovation, effectiveness and survival.

Leadership for Creativity

While there is global interest in leadership and management for sustainability there is much less clarity about which leadership behaviours are most likely to produce the most favourable outcomes with regards creativity.  Three major leadership aims are:

  • to influence the activities of an organized group toward goal-setting and goal achievement;
  • to initiate a new structure or procedure for accomplishing an organization’s goals and objectives;
  • to initiate action among people.

All are important but it can be argued that the most important is leadership to initiate action among people.   Research into industrial creativity has shown there is a positive relationship between leadership which encourages or promotes both individual self management, and the ‘stimulant’ dimensions of the work environment for creativity.   To release this organisational creativity leaders have to use behaviour in ways that encourage employees to manage their own behaviour, develop greater freedom, autonomy, and self-motivation that are most conducive to creativity.  

The other two leadership activities provide the technical framework in which leadership for creativity can thrive.

Most dictionaries suggest leadership and management are quite similar with respect to guiding or controlling a group of people to achieve a goal.   Leadership, regardless of where it comes from, formally appointed leaders or Informal leaders, provides the link between ‘planning’ and ‘doing’. Effective leadership helps unify strategic planning and the organization itself, helping to overcome inertia and the tendency to keep things the same with silo thinking. Without leadership planning, most strategies will end up as dead pieces of paper. Most importantly, when strategic planning occurs without leadership taking the lead, cynicism increases when staff see that the plan is being ignored, or even violated. The outcome of this is that formal leaders suffer a loss of credibility.

A vision and its value statements are the core of leadership and are at the heart of strategy. The leader’s job is to create the vision for the enterprise in a way that will engage both the imagination and the energies of its people.  The vision and value statements need not be complicated. Howard Schultz brought Starbucks to where it is today: a vibrant, growing, hugely profitable company with global brand recognition. He has developed and promoted a strategic vision from the beginning: to make Starbucks “the most respected brand name in coffee and for the company to be admired for its corporate responsibility.”  Two key values that supported this vision were “to build a company with a soul” and to pursue “the perfect cup of coffee.”  To realise the vision and its values Schultz had to lay out a plan that people would grasp and accept out of trust, then get everyone working from top to bottom to achieve the objectives. These are simple phrases, but they have given direction to a highly successful enterprise!  

Leaders give direction by answering the following key questions,

  • Where are we?
  • Where are we going?
  • How will we get there?

These three questions are the basis for making any kind of plan, whether the plan is strategic or operational.  A successful  plan sets priorities, focuses energy and resources, strengthens operations, and ensures that employees and other stakeholders are working toward common goals.  Setting goals or objectives is what strategic and operational plans have in common.

The strategic plan itself really deals with Where are we going? And How will we get there?

Where are we going?

The future is impossible to predict, but contemplating scenarios will focus a leader’s attention and help her define the future for the business. Specifically, it compares her organization to her competitors. What do you do best? What makes you unique? What can your organization potentially do better than any other organization?  Answering these questions will help formulate a picture of what the makeup of the future organisation will be and what it is planning to achieve.

How will we get there?

Answering this question produces the core of a  plan. It’s also the most time consuming. There are a number of routes from the current position to realise the vision, and choosing the right one will determine how quickly or slowly the strategic objectives are met.  

Planning is a disciplined effort. In the end, it produces fundamental decisions and actions. The objectives shape and guide what an organization is, who it serves, what it does and why. With a focus on the future, effective planning also articulates how an organization will know if it is successful.  The latter requires using measurable performance indicators to monitor the outcomes of the plan.  

There should be seamless connections between strategic objectives and tactical objectives  This makes it imperative that the leader and her managers have been educated  to follow the same planning logic.

Taking the Lead

Leadership education, like leadership itself, must rely on heuristic approaches such as mentoring, coaching, patterning, and, trial-and-error experience. Most educators agreed that individual personality traits provide at least part of the basis upon which leadership skills are built, and such characteristics reach stability by adolescence. Hence, a frame is established that drives how future managers view their roles, their style of communicating, and their modes of interaction with others. Clearly, these frames can change, and individuals can learn to view things differently. Managers, like educators, continue to grow socially, physically, and intellectually. However, this early grounding and foundation may strongly influence the choice of career or profession, the style or attitude toward work relationships, and the approach of managerial roles and interactions, including leadership roles.

Leadership tests common assumptions about who counts as a leader and proposes that anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting on sustainability challenges qualifies as a ‘sustainability leader,’ whether or not they hold formal leadership positions. They lead ‘with’ rather than ‘over’ others in ways that account for the long-term viability of complex, interconnected living systems. Paradox, contradiction, and differing viewpoints are recognized as natural characteristics of healthy systems. Sustainability leaders recognize that the experience of change itself, and the dissonance it creates, fuels new thinking, discoveries, and innovations that can revitalize the health of organizations, communities, and the earth. Finding the balance among and between simultaneous and sometimes contradictory demands for economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable solutions is a compelling leadership opportunity ultimately grounded in a personal ethic that reaches beyond self-interest.  These points are exemplified in the following leadership actions.

  1. Use sustainability as a unique selling point

Consumers are increasingly looking to buy ethically sourced, sustainable products, especially in the food sector. Brands should use their sustainability as a point of difference to encourage sales.

  1. Think long term

One of the main cultural barriers across society is the focus on short-term key performance indicators (KPIs) and budgets. A sustainable business needs to encourage all those it works with to look at, and reward, long-term results. This idea is perhaps most apparent in the construction industry, where the perceived higher cost often blocks the creation of greener buildings. When looking at costs across the lifetime of a building, it really makes economic sense to build a green building.

  1. Communicate differently

People become involved with sustainable businesses for a variety of reasons. For a graduate, it might be the interesting work or the higher purpose. For an investor, it might be the unique nature of the business and its growth potential. Sustainable businesses should, therefore, tailor the way they communicate with each group, depending on their interests. Be clear about what’s important to each, and also what sort of language and approach will be most effective..

  1. Embed sustainability throughout your organisation

Changing organisational structures or creating roles, such as sustainability managers, might only act as a bolt-on, when a complete change in business culture and managerial priorities is needed. Embed cultural change and responsibility at all levels of decision making, because sustainable thinking works best when it is fully part of the business’s strategic direction.

  1. Improve management skills

Sharing knowledge from the experts to every member of staff is one of the biggest challenges to achieving full sustainability. It is difficult to find the opportunity to give all our design teams a practical knowledge of our future world, so that they can design to it. Good management, however, could make this change happen.

  1. Take risks

Many sustainable businesses have taken risks by investing in systems and technologies that are not yet mainstream. While it is easier for new businesses to set up in a sector with more developed systems working and paying for themselves, it is much tougher for early adopters to raise the finance for relatively unproven technology.

  1. Disrupt old business models

Disruption has the greatest impact when it interfaces with and improves existing infrastructure or attitudes.

  1. Network

There are a number of regional initiatives that give smaller – and startup – companies the opportunities to meet, network with investors and establish like-minded and sustainability-orientated companies.

  1. Support other sustainable businesses

Many businesses tell a pleasing sustainable story when they sell their own products, but they might not buy into the sustainability stories presented by other companies.  While some stories can be greenwash, he says, sustainable businesses can support others like them by buying their products.  Continuing to meet and share experiences even in tough times can inspire and encourage businesses to keep working towards their goals. It is important to keep sharing successes.

Management Planning for Leaders

McKinsey & Co is a global management consulting firm that serves a broad mix of private, public and social sector institutions. The organisation  helps clients make significant and lasting improvements to their performance and realize their most important goals.

From the interviews and other research, McKinsey & Co have distilled a leadership model comprising five broad and interrelated dimensions:

  • meaning, or finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose;
  • managing your personal energy, or knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it;
  • positive framing, or adopting a more constructive way to view your world, expand your horizons, and gain the resilience to move ahead even when bad things happen;
  • connecting, or identifying who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging;
  • and engaging, or finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunities and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others.

Although the research mostly involved inputs from women, the model is also suitable for men, particularly where there is a search for gender free platforms for personal leadership development.

The original McKinsey model has been reorganised as a management system in Figs 2 & 3. The system applies the outcomes of leadership development to make and operate strategic, tactical and operational management plans.  As a dynamic process it sustains a state of sustainability in a range of situations, home, neighbourhood, business, local government and national government.  Feedback and reflections from the outcomes of plans are used to improve managerial performance.  

Fig 2 Generalised managerial version of the McKinsey model

A plan for managing and operating strategic or operational plans begins with answers to three questions.

The question, Where are we?, is answered by describing the present situation which is embedded in history .

The question, Where are we going?, Prompts a vision. or mission statement of the organisation as it will be in the future.

To answer the question, How will we get there?, the vision has to be transcribed into measurable objectives that have to be met by overcoming obstacles in the way of reaching these targets, Each obstacle is a limiting factor in the management plan requiring a rationale to understand it and the inputs required to control it.  Resource inputs are scheduled into a course of action by answering the following questions;

Who will do the work?

When will they do it ?

How will they do it ?

What is required for them to do it ?

How progress towards meeting the objectives will be tracked is  by comparing the outcomes of the work with the objectives using performance indicators.  This monitoring process  closes the planning loop, and allows modification of the inputs if the objectives are not being met.

Ftig 3 Generalised management systen

The planning logic is basic to all management plans.  Although a plan may be set out on paper it is much easier to write, operate and report from using a relational database.

Internet references


Ecological constellations

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

Art meets science

Fig 1 Fishing float decorated with biomorphs, The Massim District of New Guinea, Alfred Cory Haddon

For those seeking a cultural bridge between science, art, and environment the concept of biomorphism may be taken as an important crossing point.  The term “biomorph” was coined by English anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in 1895 with respect to designs derived from animate sources. It was applied to modernist art by English critic Geoffrey Grigson in 1934 and subsequently used by Alfred H. Barr in the context of his 1936 exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art.  

Alfred Cort Haddon was born on 24 May 1855, near London, the elder son of John Haddon, the head of a firm of typefounders and printers. He attended lectures at King’s College London and taught zoology and geology at a girls’ school in Dover, before entering Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1875.  At Cambridge he studied zoology and was appointed as Demonstrator in Zoology at Cambridge in 1882. For a time he studied marine biology in Naples.  In 1888 he led an expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, where they spent eight months investigating marine zoology. This visit led to his interest in the native culture of the region. He was particularly fascinated by the rapid disappearance of local customs and ceremonies and decided to make collections of domestic artefacts and filmed local customs before they were obliterated through the impact of modernity.  Haddon was convinced that the hundreds of art objects collected had to be saved from almost certain destruction by the zealous Christian missionaries intent on obliterating the religious traditions and ceremonies of the native islanders. Film footage of ceremonial dances was also collected.  It was during the collection of domestic objects that Haddon applied the term biomorph to abstract designs reminiscent of biological forms and used them to classify the native decorative art.  (Fig 1  ).

Alfred Barr  as the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York  was one of the most influential forces in the development of popular attitudes toward abstract  art.  His groundbreaking exhibition was key to establishing the pedigree for modern art, a narrative that continues to shape the Museum’s presentation of modernism to this day. In the introduction to the catalogue, Barr declared that the day’s most adventurous artists “had grown bored with painting facts. By a common and powerful impulse they were driven to abandon the imitation of natural appearance.” To demonstrate the breadth of this modernist impulse toward abstraction, Barr assembled a wide-ranging exhibition of nearly 400 works of painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, architecture, furniture, theatre design, and typography. He also drew up a now-famous mindmap of the origins and influences of modern art that was reproduced on the catalogue’s dust jacket.

In the catalogue to the exhibition he addresses the emergence of biomorphism with reference to the development of the work of Hans Arp, which he regards as ‘simple in form and reticent both in spirit and subject matter’

“In the Surrealist tradition he is the puritan. In 1915, between periods of Munich Blue Rider Expressionism and Zurich Dadaism, he made collage compositions of almost geometrical purity (fig. 2). His Dada reliefs of which the Head (fig. 3) is a late example are built up of stratified sections of jigsawn, brightly painted wooden planking, like greatly enlarged units of a picture puzzle. His recent reliefs are of extreme simplicity, the cut-out shapes confined to a single level or stratum and severely framed in a rectangle. Often the relief shapes are mingled with painted shapes as in the Relief (fig. 4). Recently Arp has turned from stratified relief to sculpture in the round. His Human concretion (fig. 5) is a kind of sculptural protoplasm, half organic, half the water-worn white stone. In his concretions he was partly anticipated by an extraordinary work of Vantongerloo, the Composition within a sphere done in 1917 (fig. 6). Vantongerloo, a member of the severely rectilinear Stijl group, never again returned to such a hiomorphic form. Arp had done his collages in squares just before 1911 and never again returned to geometric form. The Arp “shape,” a soft, irregular, curving silhouette half-way between a circle and the object represented, appears again and again in the work of Miro, Tanguy, Calder, Moore and many lesser men”.

In the 1930’s biomrphism was very much in the air.  In his polemical introduction to modern painting and sculpture, Art Now (1933), the British critic Herbert Read identified two ‘methods’, which he felt best described the approaches to art taken by contemporary artists. The first of these was an ‘empirical’ approach, which aimed to reproduce appearances. For Read, such dumb fidelity to surface appearances rendered the artist as little more than a slave to ‘the physiological mechanism of his sight’, and represented an aesthetic dead end.1 The second method – and in his opinion, the most productive – he labelled ‘scientific’. This approach required the artist to interrogate the structural nature of objects, in effect, playing the role of a scientist. The artist, Read wrote, ‘realises that the outward appearance of objects depends on their inner structure: he becomes a geologist, to study the formation of rocks; a botanist, to study the forms of vegetation; an anatomist, to study the play of muscles, and the framework of bones’.2

Fig 2 Composition, Hans Arp, 1915

Fig 3 Head, Hans Arap, 1924

Fig 4 Relief, Hans Arp, 1930

Fig 5 Human Concretion, Hans Arp, 1935

Fig 6 Construction within a sphere, Vantongeloo, 1917

Another artist who played a similar role in the break with realism was Paul Klee.  Klee was fundamentally a transcendentalist who believed that the material world was only one among many realities open to human awareness. His use of design, pattern, colour, and miniature sign systems all speak to his efforts to employ art as a window onto that philosophical principle.  Painting a canvas was a route to showcase the expression of this inner world (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Stage Landscape, Paul Klee, 1922

Geoffrey Grigson was born at the vicarage in Pelynt, a village near Looe in Cornwall. He had a scrambling country childhood that furnished him with a fingertip knowledge of the countryside.   His childhood in rural Cornwall had a significant influence on his poetry and writing in later life. As a boy, his love of things of nature (plants, bones and stones) was sparked at the house of family friends at nearby Polperro who were painters and amateur naturalists.

Gregson’s poem ‘Incident of Wolves and Water’ may be regarded as a biomorphic  expression in words of humankind’s extermination of wildness and the loss of spirituality to express things of the heart related to the common biological heritage of men, wolves and pigs..



Two men saw two long wolves, low, cross

From the extensive forest which no more

Exists and go into the also now vanished church

Ruined, by an unhinged door.


Two men saw on their hind legs on the earth floor

These same wolves lap from its pillared bowl

Stale holy water as if (they thought) beasts

Of the devil as well needed medicament for the soul.


No more than this incident of wolves and water

Is recalled of that church whose footing grates a plough,

No yob of piety mentions that the same bowl unpillared

Affords stale water in a near farmyard to fat pigs now.

Artworks that conveyed a sense of vitality – such as sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp and Moore – were discussed by Grigson in biological terms, as abstract ciphers of vital energies or microscopical forms: ‘It is Brancusi whose polished unicellular forms have been the basis for such different figures, more complex, more ‘impure’, as those of Mr Henry Moore’, he wrote in 1935.39 Yet while the fluid, protoplasmic forms of Arp and other biomorphic modernists evoked what Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would characterise as ‘the silhouette of an amoeba’,40 it was Moore’s swollen, pullulating shapes in wood and stone that – in Grigson’s eyes at least – most fully testified to biology’s influence on modernist art.41 ‘When I look at [Moore’s] carvings’, he wrote in 1943, ‘I sometimes have to reflect that so much of our visual experience of the anatomical details and microscopical forms of life comes to us, not direct, but through the biologist’.42

A poet by profession, Grigson founded the literary review New Verse in 1933 and, in the pages of the modernist art magazine Axis, formulated the term ‘biomorphism’ to describe the sort of organic, semi-abstracted forms favoured by Moore and some other contemporary artists.34 Drawing upon the nineteenth-century anthropology of Alfred Court Haddon and the biologistic criticism of the German art historian, Wilhelm Worringer, he coined the term to describe artworks that were neither representational nor wholly abstract but rather appeared to owe their origins, symbolically as much as, or more than, visually, to living things.35 In a couple of essays published in 1935, Grigson spelt out the aesthetic implications of the biomorphic idiom:

They are [artworks] in which an organic-geometric tension is very well obtained. Many of their forms are almost certainly ‘degraded’, as orthodox anthropologists would say, from organic forms which came nearer to nature. Some forms are further from any originals, and those have been described as ‘biomorphic’, which is no bad term for the paintings of Miro, Hélion, Erni and others, to distinguish them from the modern geometric abstractions and from rigid Surrealism.36

Within this critical framework Grigson left no doubt that it was Moore who most closely met his biomorphic ideals:

Product of the multiform inventive artist, abstraction-surrealism nearly in control; of a constructor of images between the conscious and the unconscious and between what we perceive and what we project emotionally into the objects of our world; of the one English sculptor of large, imaginative power, of which he is almost master; the biomorphist producing viable work, with all the technique he requires.37

The view that “art is imitation (representation)” had been replaced by the theory that art is expression. Instead of reflecting states of the external world, art is held to reflect the inner state of the artist.   For example, Henry Moore, said he sometimes began a drawing with no conscious aim but only the wish to use pencil on paper and make tones, lines, and shapes.

The most important biomorphist of his day was Henry Moore and Gregson discussed biology’s centrality to Moore’s practice in his 1943 monograph on the sculptor. New images of microscopic life and theories of biological development impacted profoundly upon Moore’s practice, had led to him adopting in the 1930s a biomorphic sculptural idiom that echoed the forms of living nature.

‘Biology must be acknowledged’, Gregson pleaded, ‘as a wellspring of inspiration for the contemporary artist and nowhere was this more evident than in Moore’s turgescent, fluid shapes. These ‘may be related to a breast, or a pear, or a bone, or a hill … But they might also relate to the curves of a human embryo, to an ovary, a sac, or to a single-celled primitive organism. Revealed by anatomy or seen with a microscope, such things are included now in our visual knowledge’.33

Collectively, these minute living things are now defined as microorganisms associated with the human body as a microbiome.

Fig 8  Two Forms, Henry Moore, 1934

Visually, Moore’s scupture bore all the hallmarks of a biologist’s awareness of nature’s microscopical structures. Artworks such as the amoebic Two Forms of 1934 (fig.8) powerfully convey the impression of swollen, cellular forms, gently distended by the dynamic flux and flow of internal fluids. The protuberant Composition 1932 (fig.5) correspondingly recalls the bulging asymmetry of microorganisms – as revealed in photomicrograph of protozoa  and gives iconographic credence to Grigson’s claim that ‘[Moore] is interested in the round, solid shapes into which life builds itself’.57  While the appellation ‘biomorphic’ could refer to natural form in the widest possible sense – encompassing objects as diverse as, nuggets of bone and the shapes of animals – it nevertheless relied upon the findings of biology to articulate fully the range of meanings to which it was subject.38.


A constellation in cosmology is a group of stars that are considered to form meaningful patterns in the celestial sphere, typically representing animals, mythological people, gods or creatures of the imagination ( Fig 9 ).

Fig 9 Costellation of Orion

In astronomy and navigation, the celestial sphere is an abstract sphere, with an arbitrarily large radius, that is concentric to Earth. All objects in the observer’s sky can be conceived as projected upon the inner surface of the celestial sphere, as if it were the underside of a dome or a hemispherical screen. Similarly, a constellation in biology is a group of organisms that are considered to form meaningful patterns in the biosphere.  The biosphere is the layer of planet Earth  where life exists.  This layer ranges from heights of up to ten kilometres above sea level, used by some birds in flight, to depths of the ocean such as the Puerto Rico trench, at more than 8 kilometres deep. These are the extremes.  In general the layer of the Earth containing life is thin: the upper atmosphere has little oxygen and very low temperatures, while ocean depths greater than 1000 m are dark and cold. In fact, it has been said that the biosphere is like the peel in relation to the size of an apple.

The celestial sphere is a practical tool for spherical astronomy, allowing astronomers to plot positions of stars.  The biosphere is also a practical tool that allows biogeographers to plot the positions of plants and their associated animals. For the purposes of research the biosphere is broken down into smaller units.  For example, a biome is a geographical area related to a climatic zone that is very large in size. Each biome has certain groups of animals and plants that are present within it. They are able to thrive there due to their ability to adapt in that particular type of environment.  The smallest functional units of the biosphere have been defined as microcosms, little worlds or worlds in miniature as opposed to biomes which are macrosoms representative of greater worlds.

But more than this it is through the concept of constellations that we observe we are part of something greater. Imagine a constellation in the sky – a grouping of stars where each star has an invisible string of energy connecting one to another and to Earth’s biosphere. In our aliveness on Earth, we, and all living earthly beings, have our origins in a common system of cosmic evolution and are tethered to past starbursts in which stars and all life forms are as one. We can see that the systems creating stars and producing the structure of bacteria are governed by the same fundamental processes. We can detect the link between the hottest fusion reactions in gamma bursters and the essential metabolic reactions which give rise to, and sustain, life.

In a biological sense, depicting systemic constellations is a method of ecosystems analysis for revealing and re-aligning hidden links within groups of tightly bonded species. Like the study of stellar constellations, detecting ecological constellations it is a visual process for revealing the hidden dynamics between life forms.  Since the origins of humankind, the physical environment has been profoundly shaped by the countless ways people make, modify, and interpret the places they inhabit or use.  Conversely the environment has always shaped the material possibilities through which people can order their existence.This reductionist approach can be taken to the level of human families.  For example, ‘Systemic Family Constellations’ describes a form of group psychotherapy that addresses current day to day problems of individuals at their source, in their family’s past; ‘Systemic Botanical Constellations’ is a form of grouping plants according to the visual patterns they make in order to understand their place in the biosphere and their relationships with humankind.

Constellations in art

In the early 1930s, Jean Arp developed the principle of the “constellation,” employing it in both his writings and artworks. As applied to poetry, the principle involved using a fixed group of words and focusing on the various ways of combining them, a technique that he compared to “the inconceivable multiplicity with which nature arranges a flower species in a field.” In making his Constellation reliefs, Arp would first identify a theme or set—for example, five white biomorphic shapes and two smaller black ones on a white ground—and then recombine these elements into different configurations. The Guggenheim Museum’s work is the last of three versions that Arp composed on this theme. His work, like Joan Miró’s, engaged Surrealism at the level of process, for he used automatist strategies to get beyond the constrictions of rational thought. Jean Arp sought to devise an abstract art that would represent a truer indication of reality than representational art, because the way in which it would be created would echo the ways in which nature itself creates.  He was using the artistic concept of constellation to investigate the environment as both a material and imaginary field through which social and cultural relations are represented and constituted.

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance c.1930 is a small rectangular painted wooden relief by French artist Jean (Hans) Arp (Fig 10). Eight monochrome biomorphic forms have been painted or placed onto the surface of a white painted board. These include three white wooden ovoid forms that sit in low relief casting shadows when under light. They are arranged among five black forms which have been painted directly onto the white background. Three of the black shapes are clustered in the centre but extend towards, and in some cases touch, the white forms, while two others seem to be either entering or leaving the composition, pushed into the lower left corner and top of the frame respectively. The white wooden frame both enhances and extends the composition, mirroring the white relief shapes within it.

Fig 10 Constellations, Hans Arp, c1930

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance c.1930 Jean Arp (Hans Arp)

It is likely that this relief was produced in Meudon, near Paris, in the studio to which Arp had moved in 1928. The white wooden forms were ordered from a craftsman and subsequently placed by the artist alongside the black shapes he had painted. It is unclear in which order the forms were added but it is evident that Arp determined the composition.

This relief shows Arp’s preoccupation with abstracted biomorphic forms inspired by constellations of natural forms such as stars and clouds, and his attempts to develop what he referred to in 1957 as an ‘object language’ based on a small number of similar shapes (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.86). He referred to such forms as ‘cosmic shapes’ and is quoted in a posthumous publication of 1972 stating that ‘the forms that I created between 1927 and 1948 and that I called cosmic forms were vast forms meant to englobe a multitude of forms such as: the egg, the planetary orbit, the bud, the human head, the breast, the sea shell… I constellated these forms “according to the laws of chance”’ (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.57).

However, In 1983 the collector Pierre Bruguière recalled how Arp, from 1930 onwards, often moved wooden shapes around in his reliefs before deciding on their definitive form, so that random placement was not involved (Robertson 2006, p.156).  Art historian Eric Robertson has suggested that Arp’s measured approach to the construction of his reliefs, combined with their ‘high degree of finish’, may seem ‘incongruous’ with the word ‘chance’ in many of their titles (Robertson 2006, p.156). However, the element of chance was manifest both in Arp’s rearrangements of the reliefs, which indicate that he did not have a premeditated plan, and also in the making of the white forms themselves: Arp reportedly gave only ambiguous instructions to the craftsman so as to encourage free interpretation.

The black and white cell-like shapes of Constellation According to the Laws of Chance express Arp’s deep-seated interest not in replicating the precise forms of nature, but in creating art based on the generative power of nature, like ‘fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb’, as Arp stated in 1931 (quoted in Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, London 1990, p.113). The organic forms in this image coupled with Arp’s tendency to reposition objects indicate this desire to develop abstract art organically through the process of making.

In 1955 Arp described how black and white shapes could ‘equal writing’ (quoted in Robertson 2006, p.150). Robertson has emphasised the dominance of these colours in Arp’s work of the 1930s and 1940s but has pointed out that the ‘spatial distribution’ of forms within Constellation According to the Laws of Chance is ‘more complex’ than in most reliefs:

The forms continue to designate separate spatial realms, but the similarity of their shapes suggests not so much a tension as a relationship of complementarity in the balancing of opposites … The physical proximity of some of the white relief shapes and the black forms, whose edges occasionally touch, suggests objects of indeterminate scale moving and intersecting through three-dimensional space, an interpretation that Arp’s choice of title, ‘constellation’, consciously invites.

‘Constellation According to the Laws of Chance’ belongs to a body of work titled ‘Constellations’ that Arp had likely begun to produce in 1928. Early examples, such as ‘Constellation 1928’ (Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen), often show Arp experimenting with white wooden shapes on a white background. He continued to develop the dominant themes of this piece throughout the 1930s in his wooden reliefs such as ‘Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III 1932’ (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and papiers déchirés including According to the Laws of Chance 1933 (Tate T05005). At the time of the production of ‘Constellation According to the Laws of Chance’ Arp was closely associated with dada and surrealism, both of which fostered an interest in the disruptive possibilities of chance operations as well as the flux and movement of biomorphic forms. Arp’s wooden reliefs also influenced artists such as Henry Moore and Joan Miró.

In 1940 and ’41, he began his well known series of 22 Constellations, which consist of black dots representing stars on a white ground, using gouache and thinned oil on paper. These are very intricate works, with every part of the canvas activated. The carefully placed dots create a ‘jumping’ or ‘dancing’ sense of movement, even a “connect the dots” feeling. However, Miro’s work tends toward more of a cosmic awareness – these are stars, rather than just abstracted dots (painted poetry).  The importance of his graphic work, continuous renewal and enrichment of his style show the high value which the artist attached to this medium of expression. Miro uses black ink with a range of values and refined tones, reaching wild and playful effects. With elements derived from Catalan traditional art and a spatiality, Miro gave his objects and symbols a proper life as subjects of stories from other worldly microcosms – the ideal reflection of a world longed for by the artist and framed in the context of the independence movement in his native Catalonia. This is in line with a prevailing idea that art’s core social and cultural function is as a mechanism for transformation.  Three routes for artists to achieve transormation of society have been put forward by Sheila Dickinson:

  • through empowering community (Complex Movements’ Beware of the Dandelions),
  • by laying bare the strange configurations of power for the sake of everyman (Rosten Woo’s Vendor Power!),
  • or by working within the existing halls of power to make them more humane and responsive to their constituents (Reggie Prim and Mankwe Ndosi’s project Tenant Voices in the Regulatory Services Department of the City of Minneapolis).

Constellations in science

Biomorphist art focuses on the visual power of a nonrepresentational form or pattern that resembles a living organism, in whole or part.  This is a cultural view of the visual impact of the living world, which brings biomorphism into contact with ecology.

The imaging interface between biological science and European art appeared with Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1632–1723.  He was a Dutch student of natural history and maker of microscopes. He assembled over 200 instruments, some of which magnified objects several hundred times. With these microscopes he discovered the presence of creatures so tiny that they were invisible to the naked eye. He called these tiny living organisms “animalcules” (Fig 11).

“While I was talking to an old man (who leads a sober life, and never drinks brandy or tobacco, and very seldom any wine) my eye fell upon his teeth, which were all coated over; so I asked him when he had last cleaned his mouth? And I got for an answer that he’d never washed his mouth in all his life … I took some of the matter that was lodged between and against his teeth, and mixing it with his own spit, and also with fair water (in which there were no animalcules), I found an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time.”

              – Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Letter 39, September 17, 1683

Fig 11 Drawings of animalicules, van Leeuwenhoek

In the 1920s and 1930s the proliferation of photomicrographic imagery led to frequent comparisons between modernist sculpture and biological forms. In his photo-album of magnified natural structures, ‘World Beneath the Microscope (1935)’, W. Watson Baker accompanied the photograph of a sea-urchin shell, shot in extreme close-up, with the caption: ‘The modern sculptor must envy the massiveness of form, the grandeur of contour, of this small shell, whose dovetailing makes a strange and interesting pattern’.53

Similarly, in an essay – published in Apollo in 1930 – the Scottish documentary film-maker, John Grierson, provocatively suggested that the ‘organic’ qualities of modernist sculpture stemmed from the influence of microcinematography on the optical unconscious:

“It comes from a quickened consciousness of organic life which I am apt to think is the special stock-in-trade of a new generation. It may be that cinema has done something to open our eyes in this respect, with its power of revealing the constructions of plant life, animal life, and all life together in motion. It would still be more accurate to say that biology is getting into our blood. Certainly we become more conscious of the sculptural relations between these different worlds”.55

On the question of artistic modernism’s relationship to scientific imaging technology Henry Moore was just as forthright. In a text published in Unit One (1934), a book of artist statements edited by Herbert Read, he recognised that the evolution of scientific technologies had impacted upon his practice:

‘There is in Nature a limitless variety of shapes and rhythms (and the telescope and microscope have enlarged the field) from which the sculptor can enlarge his form-knowledge experience’.56

The modernist painter and critic John Piper felt that such photomicrographic enlargements revealed an underlying affinity between scientific photography and modern art: ‘It is amusing in fact to turn the pages and notice the artists suggested by the photographs: Klee (anchors and plates of Synapta), Ernst (a great many times), Miró (sponge spicules), Giacometti (chemical crystals), and so on’.54

With respect to the impact of photomicrography on abstract painters around this time, Joan Miro is the prime mover (Fig 12).  From early in his career he sought to establish means of metaphorical expression—that is, to discover signs that stand for concepts of nature in a transcendent, poetic sense. He wanted to portray nature as it would be depicted by a primitive person or a child equipped with the intelligence of a 20th-century adult.

Fig 12 Print, Joan Miro

Many of Miro’s paintings may be regarded as two-dimensional biomorphic constellations where the structural elements appear as species arranged as if they were in the field of a microscope.  His pictures are graphic microcosms populated with imaginary biomorphs.  

A living ecological counterpart of Miro’s two dimensional microcosms is an area of low lying vegetation viewed from above. Heterogeneity of environments in space and time is pervasive in all natural habitats. External resources like light, water, and mineral nutrients, which are essential for plants, and environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture, are distributed heterogeneously at various scales, including at scales relevant to individual plants.  This heterogeneiity is the basis for the appearance of botanical constellations.  

An example taken from a scientific investigation is shown in Figs 13-14.  This is the work of the botanist Mary Gillham on the Welsh offshore island of Skokholm.   Gillham’s research began in 1948.  Her study was mainly concerned with the impact of the faecal nutrients from nesting colonial seabirds on the island’s vegetation.  As part of this study she sketched the distribution of four dominant plant species in a small area protected from rabbit grazing over a period of several years (Fig 13)

Fig 1  The relationship of ungrazed vegetation to the underlying burrows. Rabbit-proof enclosure, N.E. Skokholm Island, July 1953  (Gillham, 1956).

She made a sketch of the areas occupied by the four plant species within and outside the rabbit exclosure in 1954. This was a snap shot of the response of vegetation to the absence of rabbit grazing.  This diagram of a microcosm has been selected as a botanical constellation in Fig 14.  It is part of the visual evidence Gillham was gathering on the population dynamics of plant species in the presence of rabbits.  It is a scientific record and of the ecosystem she was investigating.  It is also an example of transformation, or visual metamorphosis, the terms used to indicate shape-shifting between reality and  art.  It allows an artist to transform a shape representing one item into a similar shape representing something else. This, in turn, allows one meaning to be hidden behind another. It is a visual technique equivalent to allegory and metaphor in literature and has, in consequence, been widely used. It was first proposed in the 1930’s in a slightly different form by the French art historian, Henri Foçillon. Although subsequent historians have recognized visual metamorphosis in a few works by major artists, Dürer being the best-known, it has been far more widely used than anyone, save artists, has ever recognized.

Fig 14 Botanical constellation of 4 plant species, in an ecological microcosm, Gillham, 1954.

The route of image processing to turn a birds-eye colour photograph of vegetation into an artful expression of its biological pattern is set out sequentially in Figs 15-18.  The starting point (Fig 15) is a drone shot  showing a network of footpaths on Skomer Island, a few miles from Skokholm where Gillham had worked,  It depicts a big rabbit warren (the large light brown area) embedded in the coastal slope vegetation. Picture processing sofware (Topaz Labs ‘Simplify’ ) was used to apply false colour rendering to this image,  revealing more of the topographic diversity (Fig 16). Then, the contouring effect from the artistic menu of PaintShop Pro 8 was used to produce a biomorphic image (Fig 17).  This tool is designed to simplify the complexity of a digital photograph to turn it into a simulated painting. At high resolution, the picture is made up of contoured patches resembling biomorphs in Arp’s stratified reliefs.  In this respect this rendering filter can be used to define ecological constellations in grassland based on differences in colour within, and between, individual plants. Most of the ground cover within this microcosm has six elements;  bare soil,  Bracken, Wood Sage, Bluebell and two grasses, False Oat and Yorkshire Fog.

Fig 15.  Digital view of part of Skomer Island from a drone survey, May, 2017

Fig 16  False colour rendering of Fig 15 (Topaz Labs)

Fig 17 Stratiified colour relief of Fig 16 at high a resolution of detail

Fig 18 Stratified colour relief of Fig 17 at a low resolution of detail

The sequential process just described started with the digital photograph of a small area of the island and ended with a coloured diagram, coded to the computer RGB colour system, representing its topographic diversity.  Truthing the original drone image on the ground verified that the different patches of colour in Fig 16 were due to the dominace of different botanical species.  For example the blue areas were patches of bluebells.   As part of scientific research the four images present, rather than explain, the arrangements and relations of ecological elements as components of a dynamic coastal slope ecosystem, which is dominated by the behaviour of rabbits.  The images are presentations.  In this context ‘making a presentation’’ is the art of representing something by drawing or taking photographs.  In contrast ‘making a diagram’ is showing the workings of something. The main difference between making a presentation and making a diagram is that a presentation defines an object whereas a diagram explains an object in terms of its workings, role or relations as part of a larger whole (Figs 19 & 20). At some point in its life a scientifc presentation may be regarded as an art form.

Fig 19 Making a presentation versus making a diagram

Fig 20 Diagram of oycling in a constellation of plant species on Skomer Island in relation to the impact of rabbits


Internet References

Artful Ecology

Cultures from the air

Artfujl shoreline

Wonderful weeds

Awaking the Ecologist Within

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

1 Learning from the ‘primitive

The idea of the primitive human being , and the attempt at recovering the primitive mind as a kind of corrective to modernity, is evident in much of narrative fiction, where it similarly links with the themes of restlessness, alienation and exile. Indeed, travel writing and narrative fiction may be seen to feed into each other in significant ways

Recovering the primitive and the glorification of the un urbanised noble savage is a dominant theme in the Romantic writings of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For example, he wrote on the corrupting influence of traditional urban education illustrated with descriptions of nature and man’s natural response to it. The concept of the noble savage, however, can be traced to ancient Greeks who idealized the Arcadians and other primitive groups, both real and imagined. Later Roman writers gave comparable treatment to the Scythians. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the noble savage figured prominently in popular travel accounts and appeared occasionally in English plays such as John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada (1672), in which the term noble savage was first used as an icon for the lost wisdom residing in wilderness and the cultures existing cheek and jowl with wildlands.

The importance of this kind of knowledge for a planet in crisis was the theme for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Alaska in 2005’ Wilderness, Wildlands and People: A Partnership for the Planet  At the congress, a questionnaire was distributed asking participants which writer(s) influenced them the most. There were 100 writers listed on the survey, and participants added several other names. Participants identified 91 writers, with most people mentioning several writers who have had great influence on them. Five of these writers were honoured at the congress. Sixteen others received numerous votes for their influence on attendees. These writers are Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Loren Eisley, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Margaret Murie, Roderick Nash, Sigurd Olson, Roger Tory Peterson, David Quammen, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, and Laurens van der Post.  Explorers and writers, such as van der Post and Thesiger, often wrote of the ancient link between humanity and nature, and how within our fast moving cultures of today, much of this link to the inner ecologist has been forgotten.

The serious traveller seeks now, not to discover what remains unknown, but to record what is fast disappearing. Accounts of these journeys are characterised by nostalgia for ‘primitive’ modes of life that were being eroded by the inexorable advance of modernity. This nostalgia is evident in such texts as Graham Greene’s ‘Journey Without Maps’ (2002), based on a journey undertaken to Liberia in 1936, and Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘The Danakil Diaries’ (1998), based on journeys undertaken between 1930 and 1934, and it constitutes the focus of van der Post’s ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’, based on a journey undertaken in 1955. The travellers portrayed in these works seek out remote  locations and present the cultures they encounter as instances of a kind of pure primitivism threatened by the contamination of modernity and its accompanying administrations and technologies.


2  Laurens van der Post: his own invention

In an age of rampant materialism, Laurens van der Post was a passionate and prominent champion of spiritual values.   He made up stories of an almost vanished Africa; a world of myth and magic in which the indigenous peoples of the continent lived for uncountable centuries before the Europeans came to shatter it. The nature of his spirituality was not always clear, and his more Messianic pronouncements could seem both portentous and imprecise, but the views he expressed in more than two dozen books struck a chord with millions of readers.  His perception of life’s mysterious power began with the Bushman, the first people of his native Africa, and grew .  “Men had lost their capacity to dream …” he reflected after the second world war. “I knew that somehow the world had to be set dreaming again.”   For van der Post, the Bushmen were gatekeepers to the unconscious: “I sought to understand imaginatively the primitive in ourselves, and in this search the Bushman has always been for me a kind of frontier guide.”

He invented fictitious stories about his own life to carry and develop his spiritual beliefs and  make them more acceptable to westerners seeking a unity with nature. This is in itself a sad reflection on how westerners  rank the words of a colonel in a crack regiment, which he said he was, higher than those of an acting captain in the military police, which was the reality. The literal truth was never of much interest to van der Post because he preferred what he described as the truth of the imagination.  In other words he lived his dreams. This sparked his creativity to produce stories of his heartfelt beliefs about the ills that come from racism and humanity’s severance from nature.  His fertile imagination was  allowed to invade his private life, too, and created a false fabrication of his personal career.  

The important question is why an Afrikaner brought up in a Calvinist culture should feel so tempted by the freedom of fantasy to deliver so important a philosophical message? . Evidently the inclination was there from his youth when, isolated in a small community and inspired by his father’s excellent European library, he dreamed of a quest for the Grail, of Odysseus, of the Knights of the Round Table.  Disposed from childhood to embroider and invent, he discovered that, thanks to his charm and eloquence, he could convince people.  So untruth and selective amnesia became the pattern of his life.  Occasionally, he admitted this. In one of his last books, ‘A Walk With A White Bushman’, he writes :

“This is one of the problems for me: stories in a way are more completely real to me than life in the here and now. A really true story has transcendent reality for me which is greater than the reality of life. It incorporates life but it goes beyond it.”

The woman who looked after him for the last four years of his life, housekeeper Janet Campbell, later said: “He was such an astonishing liar it seemed as automatic and necessary to him as breathing, from some flim-flam to do with socks to the engorged fabrication of his deeds. Consequently I found it impossible to see him as anything but his own invention.”

However,  the relevant question is not so much whether van der Post’s representation of the human need to value wilderness and wildness is true, but what the context, nature and purpose are of his representation.  In his essay, “Wilderness – A Way of Truth,” he recalls a conversation, possibly fictitious, he had with Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology.  According to Van der Post, Jung said “the truth needs scientific expression; it needs religious expression and artistic expression,”.  Thus he sets up the need for having different, complementary attitudes and perspectives on nature.

To illustrate this, van der Post tells a marvelous tale, supposedly from the South African Bushmen, of  “The Great White Bird of Truth.’   This story recounts how the community’s best hunter one day caught a glimpse in a rippling pool of a beautiful white bird flying in the sky. “From that moment on, he wasn’t the same. He lost all interest in hunting…One day he said to his people, ‘I am sorry; I am going to find this bird whose reflection I saw. I have got to find it,’ and he said good-bye and vanished,”.  He travelled throughout all of Africa until at the end of his strength, watching the beautiful African sunset, he thought, “I shall never see this white bird whose reflection is all I know.” And he prepared himself to lie down and die. Then at that moment, a voice inside him said, ‘Look!’ He looked up and, in the dying light of the African sunset, he saw a white feather floating down from the mountain top. He held out his hand and the feather came into it, and grasping the feather, he died. Van der Post interprets this story as the tale of a person who is spiritually aware, is open to perceiving even a reflection of the truth, and is content with just one feather of the truth. This harkens back to the second part of Jung’s comments on the truth needing scientific, religious and artistic expression, “even then…you only express part of it,”.  Van der Post stresses the ongoing need of adaptation and re-orientation of each generation to the truth of inner and outer selfhood.  For him truth was the feature of his inner life.

Van der Post’s essay, “Appointment with a Rhinoceros,” is well worth the read. Briefly it is his telling of a transformative encounter with nature in his homeland of South Africa after having been away from home for 10 years, including 3 years in a Japanese concentration camp. He says that his loss of connection with his “natural self” and regaining it in a sudden communing with nature, is an “illustration of one of the many paths we can travel in order to rediscover this lost self,”. It is a really marvellous essay about the healing of war trauma through nature as well as re-establishing the harmony of inner and outer consciousness.

Luckily, the Van der Posts inner truths have been gathered together in a ‘reader’, Feather Fall, edited by Jean-Marc Pottiez  They are thematically organised to reflect the patterns which have influenced his life and his writing.  They distil the essence of the writer, thinker, spiritual guru and man of action.


3  Thinking with wood.  

Forests lie somewhere in the widespread desire for a spiritual dimension to western life.  In this connection, forests are multipurpose places of recreation and respite, deep reflection and enchantment. They are time-woven tapestries of layered histories, myths and legends. Witness to bygone gatherings and happenings; home to an abundance of wildlife. They have provided materials and inspiration for artists and craftspeople throughout the ages.  There is something truly magical about being in a forest.  From the moment you leave urbanity behind and step inside the leafy canopy, time and space become elastic. You enter another world of secret lives. There are hidden histories and new perspectives.  The apparent stillness evaporates into a teasing multidimensional cacophony of birdsong, insects and fluttering foliage: then before your very eyes the almost suffocating chaos of branches and stems  reorders itself into an awe inspiring and highly organised web of life.

As we let go of the supermarket economy we become more aware of an inner dimension in life far longer and more significant than the outer eventfulness of everyday living.  We become surrounded by  the universal imagery of dreams, the fertile legends and stories of ancient civilization, the intuitive teaching of prophets, poets and other pioneers of human environmental awareness. By letting ourselves think with wood rather than seeing individual trees, we are able to explore the potential in humanity to acquire self-knowledge and to live life according to its fundamental precepts. We become adventurous pioneers exploring not just the outward aspects of a turbulent and troubled world but, at a deeper level, the patterns and paradoxes of human life, the myths and dreams of the human mind, the values and cultures of different peoples, the elusive springs of ourselves.  Nowhere are these creative springs more clearly evident than in the of stone spheres of Costa Rica, made in preColumbian times made by the indigenous forest peoples.  The stones were originally located across the Diquis Delta and on the Isla del Caño in Costa Rica.  They were uncovered during the 1930’s when the United Fruit Company started searching for new areas to cultivate their banana trees.  It’s estimated that there were around 300 petrospheres that varied in size from a few centimetres to over two metres in diameter. Many of these have subsequently been relocated.  The largest petrospheres weigh around 15 tons and are classed as megaliths in their own right.  Most of the stone spheres are made from a hard igneous rock known as granodiorite (Gabbro) although some have been shaped from both sandstone and limestone.  They were placed in geometrical positions but very few now remain in their original locations.  Most have been moved to private estates, museums and government buildings. Nobody really knows why they were made and, more importantly, how they were made, but we can say that they were created as the outcome of deep spiritual thinking within a relatively small isolated community.  

From the beginning, Laurens van der Post  was aware of this deeper dimension in life. He never lost his sense of the overriding purpose and awesome continuity of life and the ultimate wisdom lodged in its keeping. His perception of life’s mysterious power began with the Bushmen of his native Africa. These people may be seen as an archetype of humanity revealing how primitive consciousness has become the modern unconscious.  Traditional practices are not always better than their latest developments. The social institutions and technology of traditional societies are a product of the environmental conditions in which those societies evolved. They may or may not be appropriate for modern circumstances. What is new is the challenge for modern society to perceive and interact with ecosystems in ways that not only serve our materialistic and spiritual needs but also do so on a sustainable basis.  Laurens van der Post sets the spiritual losses of urbanisation against the loss of wonderment in the workings of the ‘first pattern’ of things in the natural world.  Nowhere is this better exemplified than in ecosystem services.

“They started at once unloading the game, and went straight on to skinning and cutting up the animals with skill and dispatch. I watched them, absorbed in the grace of their movements. They worked with extraordinary reverence for the carcasses at their feet. There was no waste to mock the dead or start a conscience over the kill. The meat was neatly sorted out for specific uses and placed in separate piles on the skin of each animal. All the time the women stood around and watched. They greeted the unloading of each arrival with an outburst of praise, the ostrich receiving the greatest of all, and kept up a wonderful murmur of thanksgiving which swelled at moments in their emotion to break on a firm phrase of a song of sheer deliverance. How cold, inhuman, and barbarous a civilized butcher’s shop appeared in comparison!”

The Heart of the Hunter, Chapter 2

“Yet with all this hunting, snaring and trapping the Bushman’s relationship with the animals and birds of Africa was never merely one of hunter and hunted; his knowledge of the plants, trees and insects of the land never just the knowledge of a consumer of food. On the contrary, he knew the animal and vegetable life, the rocks and the stones of Africa as they have never been known since. Today we tend to know statistically and in the abstract. We classify, catalogue and sub-divide the flame-like variety of animal and plant according to species, subspecies, physical property and use. But in the Bushman’s knowing, no matter how practical, there was a dimension that I miss in the life of my own time. He knew these things in the full context and commitment of his life. Like them, he was utterly committed to Africa. He and his needs were committed to the nature of Africa and the swing of its wide seasons as a fish to the sea. He and they all participated so deeply of one another’s being that the experience could almost be called mystical. For instance, he seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, an antelope, a steenbok, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree, yellow-crested cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis, to mention only a few of the brilliant multitudes through which he so nimbly moved. Even as a child it seemed to me that his world was one without secrets between one form of being and another. As I tried to form a picture of what he was really like it came to me that he was back in the moment which our European fairytale books described as the time when birds, beasts, plants, trees and men shared a common tongue, and the whole world, night and day, resounded like the surf of a coral sea with universal conversation”.

The Lost World of the Kalahari, Chapter 1

Thinking with wood with a mind tuned to these writings of Laurens van der Post grasps a great mystery which will never be solved.  No amount of knowledge diminishes the amount of the unknown  because knowledge moves and searches for meaning. If this proposition is not accepted our consciousness is deprived of a vital proportion of reality and we become excessive and arrogant in our claims on the planet. That wood should be the basis of human civilisation is a great wonder.  A sense of wonderment is part of our wholeness and keeps us humble as just another creature that has evolved on Earth and we are utterly dependent on its ecological bounty.


4 Thinking with pebbles

Laurens van der Post expressed his thoughts in the form of word pictures.  Painting a picture with words through descriptive writing takes practice.   Sense words, descriptive words, and plays on words are all tools that bring the writing to life. With such ‘pictures’, a writer will ensure that the reader won’t soon forget what has been written thanks to the mental landscape that is created by the author’s descriptive skills.  Laurens van der Post had this power at his fingertips and could project it with confidence in talks and conversation.  Already an accomplished word painter, in 1983 he published his 22nd book ‘Yet Being Someone Other’, written in an old  fisherman’s watch tower on the shingle beach of the English coastal town of Aldeburgh. Many regard it as his most revealing book.  It is a distillation of the thoughts that have moved him at the deepest level of imagination. This is testified by the unanimous praise heaped upon it by a wide range of influential reviewers.

The story starts with his childhood in southern Africa, and the passionate interest in ships and the sea that led him to take part, as a young man, in two voyages of special significance: the first in a whaling ship, with a Norwegian captain whose values and imaginative range unexpectedly nourished his own, and then a long voyage to Japan that not only enriched but enlarged his life. Both are absorbing tales of action and adventure; but more than that, they are narratives of personal discovery that go beyond the storms and happenings of the outside world into the uncharted waters of the other world within.

The harmonious mental blend of the external and the internal expresses the paradoxical duality of our being.  The duality is brought out vividly in the author’s marvellous evocation of Japan as it was just two generations after the country was opened to the West.  

With his deep-rooted sense of the sea, and of the part it has played in man’s aspirations and destiny, Laurens van der Post ends his story where it began, at the Cape of Good Hope, lamenting the loss of a line of ships whose tradition dates back to the dramatic discoveries of the Renaissance mariners.  A the same time he recognizes a new dimension of hope for the questing spirit of mankind in the constant search for meaning and purpose in life.  ‘Yet Being Someone Other’ brings together his veneration for the human bond with nature, his quest for the secret springs of life’s meaning, his high hopes that the family of man will heal its wounds and rediscover its soul on the way to the stars, and his conviction that he has a personal obligation to history to command the utmost respect for the bond between people and land.

‘Yet Being Someone Other’ is undoubtedly the most unusual and unplaceable of all van der Post’s writings.  Like most of them it is heavily autobiographical; but, it is also much more than that — a kind of prolonged meditation on the part played in his life and that of the post-Renaissance modern world by ships and the sea. However this voyage is an interior one, seeking to understand his own selfhood and the place of humanity in the cosmos. It deals not only with the wonders of the deep but of the mysteries of the Deeps.  

Regarding the identity of van der Post’s ‘other’, we must start with a quotation from Jung, van der Post’s mentor.

“Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect”

(C.G. Jung, in Sabini, 2005, p. 2).

Jerome Bernstein in his book, ‘Living in the Borderland’, addresses the evolution of Western consciousness and describes the emergence of the ‘Borderland,’ a spectrum of reality that is beyond the rational yet is palpable to an increasing number of individuals. Building on Jungian theory, Bernstein argues that a greater openness to trans rational reality experienced by Borderland personalities allows new possibilities for understanding. Mary-Jayne Rust, writing about the psychological responses to ecological crises validates that language helps reconnect self with body and land.  She muses on the potential of creating a language incorporating self and earth as do many languages in indigenous cultures that weave together body and land, community, and universe.  In this context, it is important to inquire why van der Post, with a mind filled with knowledge about the richness of relationships between culture and environment in Africa and the Far East, gravitated to the small English seaside town of Aldeburgh and what part it played in releasing this complex literary work.  

First, Aldeburgh enters the English literary landscape through the poetry of George Crabbe. In his lifetime (1754-1832), he enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim. Byron ranked him with Coleridge as “the first of these times in point of power and genius”. Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Jane Austen and Tennyson were also admirers.   Crabbe’s best known works are the long narrative poems, ‘The Village’, published in 1783 and ‘The Borough’ in 1810.  Crabbe doesn’t name the seaside town featured in ‘The Borough’, but no one doubts it’s based on Aldeburgh, where he was born and spent his early life. Some of the descriptions still apply to the place today – houses “where hang at open doors the net and cork”, marshland with “samphire banks and saltwort”, tarry boats and rounded flints.  Through elegant rhyming couplets, Crabbe depicts a shocking world of poverty and brutality relieved only by the beauties of the natural world.

Second, the composer Benjamin Britten discovered Crabbe’s poetry whilst living in America.  The poetry was a revelation: “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked.”. The experience evoked a longing for the spiritual overtones of that grim and exciting seacoast around Aldeburgh.  On his return from the US he wrote the music for the opera Peter Grimes based on a single chapter of Crabbe’s poem and it had its first performance in 1945..   Britten made his home in Aldeburgh and three years later he founded the Aldeburgh festival.  Peter Grimes in Crabbe’s poem represents the ‘other’ in the East Anglian fishing community that persecutes him as an outsider. In this context Britten is probably the most celebrated composer of oppressed ‘others’ who are misunderstood. Laurens van der Post could well be put into the category of a mystic whose message is difficult to understand.       

Third, Aldeburgh remains an artistic and literary community with an annual Poetry Festival and several food festivals as well as other cultural events. Third, Aldeburgh is a tourist destination with visitors attracted by the absence of  fairground entertainments and the exceptional quality of the natural wildness of its surroundings.  Second homes make up roughly a third of the town’s residential property.

Finally, Aldeburgh and its pebble beach is a borderland that faces full on to the powerful eroding action of the North Sea.  Its storm beach, thrown up and maintained as a dynamic linear feature of graded shingle by the tides, is a maritime wonder, an ecological wilderness of pebbles which extends for miles to the north and south of the town.

Cut off by extensive moorland, mudflats and saltmarshes to the west,  Aldeburgh has always been a small self contained inward looking cultural island,with big skies over land and sea. In fact there are few places better within two hours of London for an urbanite, which van der Post was at that time, wishing to meditate on the the mysteries and tragedies of the Deeps.  From his writing perch high above Aldeburgh’s shifting pebbles, which have been gradually encroaching on the town since its first settlement in Tudor times, van der Post’s gaze would be inevitably directed into the featureless, untamable grey North Sea.  This was his horizon for musing on a rich segment of his inner world and its achievements.

“Accordingly I look back on countless moments like those without regret or even nostalgia, but only with unqualified gratitude to life for giving me so privileged a chance of communion with the sea and its meaning, both in the dimension of the here and now of daily life as in the depths of the spirit where, through the symbolism of the external world made manifest, we are in touch with all that has been and all that is to come”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 2

“Both sea and ships are in themselves natural symbols of royal and ancient standing in the mind of man”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

“Those who persevered to the true end, whatever their call to the sea, would find it had the power, unequalled by any other natural phenomenon, to transcend all and make mere man more than himself”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

A storm beach is a beach affected by particularly fierce waves usually with a very long fetch. The resultant landform is often a very steep accumulation of rock fragments composed of rounded cobbles, shingle and occasionally sand.  It is one of the few wild ecosystems that has persisted visually worldwide from the ocean’s beginnings.  The tidal fetch hitting Aldeburgh in a north easterly gale can be around 2000 km.  Shipwreck and deaths at sea have always been talking points in the town’s daily life.

Day by day each tide animates an imperceptible progression of pebbles along by the promenade then south beyond the town to augment the great pebble bank of Orford Ness.  This is the treeless, botanically sparse, marine desert, albeit only a mile across, which chimes with the Kalahari in a mind a mind dwelling on human survival.  The last of the pastoralists recorded on Orford Ness, Phineas Munnings, had died long before van der Posts arrival. We can surmise that it was probably the absence of an aboriginal inhabitant to represent the ‘bushman’ of the shingle banks and marshes that prevented van der Post from articulating a particular inner response to Aldeburgh’s maritime wilderness.  Nevertheless,we can imagine him treading the shingle, brooding on the fate of planet Earth and the inability of humankind to take the necessary action to bring its demands for ever more planetary resources in line with the planet’s ecological productivity.   

“I myself, in my own small way in south-east Asia and all over Africa, had tried in vain to achieve a more merciful settlement of our debt to life. I had tried for some fifty years through my writing to prevent petrification and judgement according to the letter of archaic law in a court of fate whose appointed officers were executioners without love, and disaster without human bonds. How could men still doubt that disaster and suffering were the terrible physicians summoned by life when all other more gentle means of healing them had failed?”

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 7

“There seemed to me moments in a desperate time when one had also to do and act on the ordinary everyday human scene. Art and writing, it seemed, ultimately demanded not only expression in their own idiom but also translation into behaviour and action on the part of their begetters. Being and doing, doing and being, for me were profoundly interdependent, particularly in a world where increasingly it seemed to me the ‘doers’ did not think and the thinkers did not ‘do’ . . . In the Western world to which I belonged, all the stress was on the ‘doing’ without awareness of the importance to it of the ‘being’. Somewhere in this over-balance of contemporary spirit, there appeared to be an increasing loss of meaning through the growing failure to realize how ‘being’ was in itself primal action, and that at the core of ‘being’ was a dynamic element of ‘becoming’ which gave life its quality and from which it derived its values and overall sense of direction. Because of a lack of such `being’, we were constantly in danger of becoming too busy to live”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

“I believe that my own life established some small but undeniable and empirical facts: namely that every life is extraordinary; that the `average man’ is a statistical abstraction and does not exist; and that every single one of us — not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering — matters to a Creation that has barely begun.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 7

This leaves us to question the enigmatic title of his Aldeburgh book, ‘Yet Being Someone Other’.  Normally this phrase would be the start of an explanation to qualify a personal course of action. One such significant far reaching action was his departure from the Cape of Good Hope in one of the last ocean going passenger vessels.  At this point of severance from his African roots van der Post presents us with an image as it would be seen in a newsreel. Yet, having an imaginative self within brought to the surface, by another root, the cultural impact of lost Portuguese explorers probing the African coastline in the days of sail for material wealth and to satisfy the insatiable human wanderlust.

Shipwreck, almost unendurable hardship at sea, and the constant and mysterious disappearance of vessels became so normal a part of Portuguese experience that it inspired a special literature of its own. Ordinary Portuguese men and women had their imagination so inflamed by what was increasingly a national horror story that they acquired an insatiable appetite, not just for factual records of what happened at sea but for fiction about the sea, ships and the men who sailed in them. It was called Literatura de Cordel, loosely translated as `string literature.’   It was given this name because so many stories of this kind came from the pens of popular Portuguese writers that they were rushed into print in a glorified pamphlet form and displayed all over Lisbon, strung up on string and hung up outside shops like some new sort of salami of the imagination, pre-cut for instant consumption.

   Yet Being Someone Other, pp.22-23

Above all, van der Post’s message for the world in ‘Yet Being Someone Other’ is that there is a bushman archetype in everybody but we have lost contact with that side of ourselves and we must learn again about a universal primeval inner self that animated the ancient hunters and pastoralists. The Bushman is walking about in our midst. personifying an aspect of humanity which we all have, but with which we have increasingly lost contact.  According to van der Post, Jung believed that every human being has a 2 million year-old man within himself and if he loses contact with that 2 million year-old self he loses his real roots in human evolution.  This disjunction between origins and actions has impoverished us and endangered Earth itself.  Diagnosing this ill revealed to van der Post that the difference between this naked little man in the desert, who owned nothing, and us, was that he is and we have, but no longer are. We have exchanged having for being. In this sense the inner bushman is presented as a bridge between the world in the beginning, with which we’ve lost touch, and the global world of consumerism, in which everyone is clamouring to satisfy wants rather than needs.  The prescription is simple.  Everyone must take the minimum for needs with a little bit extra to buy time for creativity. Applying the prescription is difficult because those who have gained the most from globalising capitalism will not give up their surplus to those who have the least.  To this misfit between sustainability and exploitation Laurens van der Post has no answer, but then neither has anyone else.

The traveller and author Jan Morris sums up Laurens van der Post as follows:

“He is a mystic, disguised as a novelist and man of action, and he is here in the world to ponder its incalculables, and allow us to share his conjectures. Yet he seems dissatisfied with the role, and wishes always to translate his long ecstasy into something more positive, some plan of action, some practical purpose. It is as though a sense of guilt, inherited perhaps from the Calvinist conscience, drives this inspired dreamer into a closer involvement with the world’s reality: as though the dream, and the vision, is not reality enough”.


5  A wonderment curriculum

Laurens van der Post spent his life teaching us about the mismatch between humankind’s wants and needs.  Since his death it is now commonplace to see that  in the long run we have no choice but move towards a society in which there cannot be any economic growth, market forces cannot be allowed to determine our fate, there must be mostly small and highly self-sufficient and self-governing settlements, mostly local economies, very little international trade, highly participatory political systems, and above all a willing acceptance of frugal lifestyles and non-material sources for life satisfaction.The best that education for sustainability can achieve within present socioeconomics is to inculcate a sense of wonderment in the natural world and teach the skills necessary to provide technical fixes to overcome inevitable future catastrophe.

Regarding educating for a sense of wonderment. Albert Einstein set out the thinking framework as follows:

“I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that we sometimes “wonder” quite spontaneously about some experience? This “wondering” appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensely it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from wonder”

“A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit in the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct “touch”). I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things”

Rachel Carson put it this way:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength”.

The conventional educational belief is that by exposing people to the outdoors and immersing them in the workings of nature will elicit a deep sense of appreciation and wonderment. Van der Posts standpoint is that It is only by finding our place in nature, and nature’s place within us, that we can truly address the environmental challenges we face today.  The mission is to reconnect us to the natural world and to bring to our attention its role in sustaining human life on this planet.  He sees us all as walking artists, hunter/ gatherers of stories about, place, memories and objects. His writings are a wake up call to the ecologist within us all.  The educational home for this awakening is deep ecology, the environmental movement and philosophy which regards human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem.

Taking this into account, the following core beliefs of a wonderment curriculum operate within the positive cycle of learning fuelled by curiosity and wonderment.


  • From birth, our innate curiosity drives us to wonder, explore, dream and discover.
  • Curiosity drives passion. “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious”. Albert Einstein
  • Promoting belonging and inclusion for all children to ignite and follow their passionate curiosity.
  • Education and learning should be a vehicle that ignites a child’s natural wonderment and curiosity encouraging them to ask why and why not.


Van der Post followed this prescription in words, developing his ideas in the form of an ongoing philosophical travelogue.  In summary his message was “There is a way in which the collective knowledge of mankind expresses itself, for the finite individual, through mere daily living… a way in which life itself is sheer knowing”.

Wonderment  triggers poetry.  John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ encapsulated the social value of poetry.  

’ ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

So perhaps the aim of education for living sustainably is to prepare students for a world that will require them to learn continuously, to find and solve problems globally, to act with empathy so as to bring hope and equity to many and strive to live a life full of a passionate pursuit of beauty and wonderment.  A wonderment curriculum is led by the belief that values other than market values must be recognized and given importance, and that Nature provides the ultimate measure by which to judge human endeavours.

A practical prescription is to live and learn pictorially in a state of profound wanderlust and wonder as da Vinci might have done.  Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, architect, inventor, writer, and even musician-the archetypal Renaissance man, but Fritjof Capra argues, he was also a profoundly modern.  Not only did Leonardo invent the empirical scientific method I over a century before Galileo and Francis Bacon, but Capra’s decade-long study of Leonardo’s fabled notebooks reveal him as a picture thinker centuries before the term systems thinking was coined. He believed the key to truly understanding the world was in perceiving the connections between phenomena pictorially to reveal the larger patterns formed by those pictorial wow-factor relationships.


6  Profound wanderlust

Picture education is about exposing students to the wow-factor.  This focuses learning on  the  theory of multiple intelligences and particularly on spatial intelligence.  There is a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees. Gardner proposes eight primary forms: naturalistic, linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal. A number of others also suggest an additional one: technological.

One implication of Gardner’s theory is that learning/teaching should incorporate the intelligences of each person. For example, if an individual has strong spatial intelligence, then spatial activities and learning opportunities should be used.  A wonderment curriculum has to concentrate on the principles of picture production.  It is probably true to say that all people to a greater or lesser extent possess spatial intelligence.  It has been estimated that visual learners comprise 65 percent of the population, so crafted images are clearly key to engaging people in eLearning courses and making picture education accessible to most learners.

People with spatial intelligence (“picture smart” or visual smart) have the ability, or preference, to think in pictures.   Spatial intelligent people create and use mental images; enjoy art, such as drawings, and sculpture, use maps, charts, and diagrams; and often remember with pictures through the process of mind mapping.

The other thing that picture education is about is the feeding of wanderlust.  Wanderlust is defined as the desire to gather knowledge by seeing new things and is usually applied in the context of the urge to travel.  According to Miriam Websters Dictionary, the definition of Wanderlust is simply “a strong desire to travel”. It comes from the German language and is spelled Wanderlust. It is a relatively new word, dating back to the beginning of this millennium. These days the world is explored and presented through wanderlust images, when the traveller goes forth for pleasure or for political, aesthetic and social meaning.

Andrew Delaney, Director of Creative Content at Getty Images explains Wonderlust (sic.) Imagery as: “Images that inspires a sense of awe. They are images that are  connecting us with our surroundings and elicit a reaction of wonder when you see them.”

Here are some of Delaney’s key points for teachers wishing to produce their own Wanderlust Imagery:

  • Work with depth.
  • Play with colour and texture.
  • Give a sense of the unknown.
  • Don’t worry about showing “bad weather”.
  • Mother Nature is often the “hero” in the image.
  • Be very aware of scale and effective composition.
  • Catch the particles in the air to diffuse the light e. g. smoke or dust.
  • Experiment with a wider crop. Embrace the 16:9 format to illustrate the scale of nature.
  • Dare doing a non-extreme sports shoot. A contemplating feel is often more welcomed.
  • Make pictures that are inclusive, that makes you wish you were there. Sometimes cliché works.
  • You don’t always have to show the entire object to get other to understand what you are saying. Don’t be afraid of cropping.
  • Use a subtle approach to colour rendering. Colour pallets are becoming more subtle. Man and nature are becoming more blended.

Delaney makes some interesting points when talking about authenticity of the image.  The concept of Point of View (POV) photography can sometimes be very effective when trying to evoke a feeling with the viewer, because it is about enjoying what that person behind the camera is enjoying.   He says: “Be prepared to either discover it, or create a set of circumstances where the moment happens and you are there to photograph it.”  Another of his tips is to try to be present and do your best to catch the decisive moment. It is not about controlling a shoot, but creating a shooting window, where as a period of actions happens and you step out of it to record what happens,

“When the editors at Getty first look at a picture, they see if it works emotionally. Technical qualities are secondary but can sometimes add authenticity. Flare, backlight, a crooked horizon, blown highlights, or excessive grain/noise can all evoke emotions and helps with nostalgia. This must however be done delicately.

“All pictures today live or die on the basis of how they look as a thumbnail – which means you absolutely got to get your composition right”. If your picture doesn’t read as a thumbnail, it’s going to die. It is not going to get clicked on. The client of ours is not going to go to the next step of investigating an image if it fails the test of what it looks like as a thumbnail. It’s got to look good”.

The concept of accessing a photographic point of view is central to generate the motivation to travel in order to experience the point of view first hand.  Travel needs and motives reveal educational needs because they stem from an inner feeling of wanting to learn about new places and things, further fuelled by external pull factors that promise just that. This contemporary type of explorer has a fairly clear idea where she wants to go and she is not travelling away from her home (such as it is the case with escape), she is travelling toward a fixed destination. Her basic need springs from the feeling of a deficiency that she has encountered in her home environment. This deficiency (contrary to a lack) is subjective and a social construct. If the traveller’ nowadays described as a tourist,  is not capable of satisfying this deficiency (with its corresponding need), she has to look for other ways to continue.  

The first aim of an escape is to gain distance from one’s home environment. It is like living in between two realities: the home environment that has been left behind, and the destination where one is physically present but not as a part of it; this is a betwixt and between situation that is also referred to as liminality. The alienation of the home environment during the period of being a traveller refers to a space-related liminality, wherein places that themselves are liminal, such as beaches (between land and sea), are usually preferred.   Profound changes in the way that place and time are experienced as a result of accelerated globalization have led to a new questioning of identity, the self and the place people take in this world. Not only are ways of living leading to a sense of loss of identity, for many individuals computerized work conditions and everyday roles impose constraining and monotonous routines in which individuals find it difficult to pursue their self-realization.  Many theories on motivation and needs to be satisfied have used this model as a basic educational outline. Pearce applied it to the case of tourism and combined it with the tourist’s experience. He proposed five layers of holiday motivations:

  • relaxation (rest <> active)
  • stimulation (stronger emotions)
  • social needs (family, friends)
  • self esteem (self development through cultural, nature or other activities)
  • self-realization (search for happiness)

Travel needs and motives follow these different levels, the first two being the most common. It should be noted that this model is based on the Western world and in those parts where community life is especially valued, the ultimate goal is often not self realization but being able to serve the group, for example.

Through the works of  Laurens van der Post there runs a thread demonstrating intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Overall his writings are a philosophical travelogue, communicated in words.  They  illuminate the capacity of humanity’s inner life to distinguish the evils of modern civilisation, the life-enhancing wonders of primitive (especially Bushman) culture, and for communicating ecstatically detailed sunsets, sunrises, lions, elephants, bees, and extraordinary facts about the wilderness of (it seems) South-West Africa.  His writings are short on pictures.  This is a feature of the times when they were written.  A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information. The research outcomes on visual learning make complete sense when you consider that the human brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor. In fact, the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.

If we think of literacy as reading and writing words, visual literacy can be described as the ability to both interpret and create meaningful visuals. With the constant, overwhelming flow of information and communication today, both parts of this modern literacy equation are non-negotiable   Our brains are wired to rapidly make sense of and remember visual input. Visualizations in the form of diagrams, charts, drawings, pictures, and a variety of other imagery can help students understand complex information. A well-designed visual image can yield a much more powerful and memorable learning experience than a mere verbal or textual description.   Movies and still images have been included in learning materials for decades, but only now has faster broadband, cellular networks, and high-resolution screens made it possible for high-quality images to be a part of eLearning. Graphic interfaces made up of photos, illustrations, charts, maps, diagrams, and videos are gradually replacing text-based courses.  We are now in the age of visual information where visual content plays a role in every part of life.

According to  Lynell Burmark, an education consultant who writes and speaks about visual literacy:

“…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2) […]. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”

Because of television, advertising, and the Internet, representing social facts pictorially as resources for learning through visuals is now the primary literacy of the 21st century.  It’s no longer enough to read and write text. Students must learn to process both words and pictures. They must be able to move gracefully and fluently between text and images, between literal and figurative worlds.  

Today, anyone with a digital camera and a personal computer can produce and alter an image.  As a result, the power of the image has been diluted by the ubiquity of images and the many populist technologies (like inexpensive cameras and picture-editing software) that give almost everyone the power to create, distort, and transmit images. But it has been strengthened by the gradual capitulation of the printed word to pictures, particularly moving pictures . The ceding of text to image has been been likened  to an articulate person being rendered mute, forced to communicate via gesture and expression rather than speech.   It was as a storyteller that Laurens van der Post communicated to people in their millions.  Our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than a list of facts–it’s easier for us to remember stories because our brains make little distinction between an experience we are reading about and one that is actually happening.  But a point can be driven home even more effectively by images.. That’s because visuals add a component to storytelling that text cannot: speed.  Research shows that, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text, which means you can paint a picture for your audience much faster with an actual picture. It’s no surprise then that tweets with images are 94% more likely to be retweeted than tweets without.  This also points the way to the use of Internet media such as Pinterest (pinboards), Tumblr (picture blogs) Instagram (social networking) and Mindomo (mindmaping) for mass education.  


7  Internet References




Picture blog

Social media




Teaching nature

Nature photography


Writers and wilderness

Yet Being Someone Other


End of an Age of Plenty

Friday, August 4th, 2017


A co production partnership has been formed between, International Classrooms On Line and the Bellamy Fund to promote rescuemissionplanetearth.  People can interact to build an intergenerational global network for living sustainably with pictures and comments on Tumblr.


1  Creating a homeland in the Anthropocene

Fig 1 Choice in an age of plenty

The Anthropocene

A consumer society is a post-industrial term used to describe the fact that society is characterised more by what people consume and less by the jobs they do or goods they produce. As our relationship with consumerism has changed so too have the choices available of why, when, where and how we consume (Fig 1).  Human consumerism is a major characteristic of the Anthropocene. The latter age is the latest  in the history of life on planet Earth.. The Anthropocene comes either after or within the Holocene, the current geological epoch, which began approximately 10,000 years ago with the end of the last glacial period. The Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geological time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geological, hydrological, biospheric and other Earth system processes are now altered by humans adversely for the wellbeing of humans.  The word combines the root “anthropo”, meaning “human” with the root “-cene”, the standard suffix for “epoch” in geologic time. These environmental problems of the Anthropocene are bound up with the detrimental impact of the growth of capitalism and the associated progress of technology.

The invention of activities for living a secure life of plenty is a common biological imperative for the successful evolution of all creatures.  However, in our now overcrowded world, human behaviours have to evolve in order to sustain resources once regarded as inexhaustible.  Essential environmental services are now seen as being in limited supply and a brief age of plenty in Western countries is now receding to be replaced by an age of austerity.   

Impact of capitalism

The first historical role of capitalism was to concentrate the previously scattered means of production into giant monopolistic firms; to establish an interconnected capitalist world market; to develop the means of production and thus lay the material basis for the creation of a society of superabundance.  With reference to the age of plenty, Henry Hamilton’s book, ‘History of the Homeland’, was fourth in the series ‘Primers for the Age of Plenty which were’ published seven decades ago by Allen & Unwin and edited by the outstanding polymath,educationalist Lancelot Hogben. Hamilton’s decision to highlight the concept of ‘homeland’ is significant. It was appropriate to his broad cross disciplinary sweep of Britain’s economic history encompassing the age of mass production, which began in Great Britain during the 18th century. His emphasis was on the search for security of place, which could be achieved only through education that makes us alert to the social problems human beings are facing for the first time. Capitalism leads to a significant loss of political, democratic, and economic power for the vast majority of the global human population. The reason for this is that capitalism creates very large concentrations of money and property in the hands of a relatively small minority of the global human population (the Elite or The Power Elite), leading to very large, and increasing, wealth and income inequalities between the elite and the majority of the population.  These economic inequalities have spread to the former colonised nations.  To these woes we can now add environmental degradation and climate change.  

Art in an holistic education system

The European compartmented education system was designed to produce specialists for developing the mass production economy of nation states and their colonies, when no thought was given to the planet running short of resources.  Hamilton believed that feeling secure in your industrialised homeland should be the practical goal of a ‘new holistic education’, which cuts across the old subject boundaries, to solve new problems that required the arts of multidisciplinary management applied to people and resources.  This system would prize being human, being creative and engaging politically with society at the ground level.

The needs to manage the inherited habitat by a recently evolved primate involved the application of human creativity to make ever more tools and develop production engineering. In this sense ‘engineering’ is an agent, instrument, or means of accomplishment. The art of engineering evolved early in primate stock. For example, it is a feature of nest production by Orang Utans, when they show great skills in choosing, bending and weaving large, flexible branches into a strong and comfortable nest scaffold. Starting from this pre-human base, the ‘progress’ of humanity to invent tools and engines to support the practical activities for living a life of plenty began to accelerate in the 15th century and has proceeded at an ever-increasing rate to the present.

The Earth as a whole is approximately in a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). None of this means that the earth is static, a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the human economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” planet, which in the developed world is currently proceeding at between 2 to 7 percent year on year, is truly “something new under the sun” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The important fact is that the closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the closed cycle steady state behavioural mode of the Earth.  Ecologists describe a closed cycle system as one that does not exchange matter with the outside world. Although the only truly closed-loop system may be the Earth itself, some industrial subsystems can approach closed loops, and the concept is useful as an ideal for assessing and inspiring improvements in industrial sustainability and domestic consumption.


2 Cosmopolitanism and picture education

Adopting a steady state livelihood

The question then that is central to the future of humanity is how do we persuade all people to adopt a steady state livelihood?

First of all, the answer must be a cosmopolitan one because the problem of ever increasing consumption is a global phenomenon and no place on Earth is untouched by humanity’s ever increasing demands for more and more stuff.

Second, human culture in all its diversity is the outcome of the capacity for conceptual thinking. Such thinking has to harness behaviour change to bring humanity into equilibrium with our planet’s steady state system.  

Third we have to create a new mass education system to bring this about.

We live in a visually intensive society where visuality singles out, or makes, things which act as triggers to remind people of the rules, beliefs, etc by which their culture is organised. They act as a shorthand way to keep people aligned with economic realities. Many artists today are deeply committed to making work that addresses pressing social issues and changes the way we perceive the world.

Art in its original context was seen as a broad activity through which people express particular ideas about humanity in time and place.  Pictorial art gives a powerful focus to these ideas. Holistic education passed on with the aid of artistic symbols and oral traditions was probably the goal of the first human primates. While anatomical fossil evidence for the capability of speech is controversial, the archaeological discoveries of purported cultural symbols coincides with a creative explosion in the making of many kinds of artefacts. Abstract designs scratched on mineral pigment appeared in Africa about 75,000 years ago and are widely accepted by archaeologists as evidence for the use of symbolism and language to reinforce ideas of individuals and peoples’ belonging to a place in nature. Cave art, which, in its style and execution, could have been produced yesterday, dates from about 35,000 years ago.   From this point onward there is a growing variety of new types of tools that indicate a thoroughly modern capacity for novelty and invention in order to secure local natural resources.

Art and mass persuasion

The history of images used for the purpose of mass persuasion is part of ancient history and reminds us of the human need to belong (Fig 2).  Belongingness is the emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people tend to have an ‘inherent’ desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.   Insofar as art is undoubtedly an outcome of the need for humans to communicate entities and ideas, it should be drawn into the domain of human ecological behaviour now expressed as living sustainably, which itself has become one of the most ambitious and fertile aspects of the 21st century thought.

Fig 2   Marketing Christianity in Chartres Cathedral (1150).  A selection from 20 stained glass storytelling panels

A model for modern mass persuasion is the intensive poster campaign that led thousands of ordinary men to volunteer for the British Army and be killed in their thousands fighting the First World War (Fig 3).  

Fig 3 Poster to boost volunteering for the forces in the First World War

A new concern for art as a messenger is to consider what is identified as the ethical content of symbols to unify humanity in a conservation culture; their moral and aesthetic style and their impact in mass-education for behaviour change. This implies a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity. The need to belong is the need to give, and receive attention to, and from, others. In this connection Clifford Geertz, in his book ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, wrote:

“As we are to deal with meaning, let us begin with a paradigm viz. that sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos, (the tone, character and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood) the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order”.

Seven forms of behaviour are implicit in conservation management of Earth’s resources, each of which can be communicated visually with pictorial icons

  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Justice
  • Spirituality
  • Education
  • Equality
  • Fraternity
  • Care for environment

All seven items are concepts of conservation management in business and environment.  They are pillars of the ethical propriety of contemporary cultural ecology and are capable of being expressed in the art of mass persuasion. As artistic symbols they represent a worldview of the social framework needed for humanity to survive ‘peak oil’ and maintain the movement towards a steady state global democracy.  This cultural stance is needed for the transformation of people into a learning rather than consuming society, with less greed and more spirituality. It can be argued that cosmopolitanism is the philosophical trans global pillar for living sustainably.

Thomas Pogge defines cosmopolitanism in terms of three important characteristics:

  • ·Individuality–the consideration is for individual people, not groups, tribes, families, or nation states:
  • ·Universality–status of moral consideration is equal to all, not just to a particular group like whites, men, or those in the “developed” world:
  • ·Generality–the special and equal moral status of all individuals has global force. Persons are units for everyone’s concern, which means you should not simply concern yourself with your own fellow compatriots in a more local sphere. In short, our moral responsibility spans across geographical boundaries.


3  Social Media and education for behaviour change

Environmental announcements of the Anthropocene do not merely describe. They also prescribe.  Like any environmental matter of concern, the Anthropocene is already implicated in moral narratives about who is accountable and what is right.  If humans are responsible for such widespread, potentially catastrophic changes to our biosphere, then surely we have a moral obligation to change our ways.Therefore there is a  place for picture language in education for an age of austerity.  The essence is to spread and reinforce care for the future survival of a biosphere where maintaining the human ecological niche equilibrates economic development, social equity and justice, with environmental protection. The mission is to ensure people can draw upon Earth’s continuing closed cycle ecological productivity way into the future.

The invention of photography was a new way for people to build and form their identities.  In particular, sharing visual icons with peers through social media is now an important part of identity formation and belonging to a particular group that crosses national boundaries.  The widespread use of infographics and data visualisations on social media may lead us to think of them as something of a modern phenomenon. But the popular infographics we interpret, share, and create today have roots in much older scientific visualisation techniques and research communication efforts going back centuries.  What is new is the ease with which individuals with a mobile phone can create and transmit photographs which can be ‘read’ by recipients.  We all love visuals, and the statistical evidence is there to back it up. Pinterest is second only to FaceBook in driving referral traffic to websites. Also, tweets with photos get 35 percent more retweets on average.

We all understand how language, written or spoken, can convey meaning but there is no obvious means of communication in a photograph.  The journal Psychological Science published a study about the psychology of sharing which proved that evoking certain emotions can help increase the chance of a message being shared. Essentially, emotional stimuli activates the nervous system and boosts “social transmission.” Another study looked at what types of emotions evoked by content sparked sharing. Among the top ones were awe, amusement, inspiration, shock, fear and controversy.  This illustrates why visual storytelling is a very effective social media technique. Visual storytelling involves images that resonate with people through emotional elements and relatable story arcs. Evoking an emotional response through imagery is what motivates sharing. Our brains analyse what the eye sees instantly. The subject and story of a photograph must be identified quickly by the viewer. If the viewer can’t figure out what the subject is…. all interest is lost.

But, merely describing the world pictorially with exquisite detail in an aesthetically pleasing fashion isn’t enough to carry a message. For an image to transcend plain description it must contain inner meanings beyond the bald depiction of the subject. There must be a channel of communication within the pattern of light and shade fixed in the image. Yet when we look at a photograph that has grabbed our attention we inevitably gather meaning; even if it is rejected we find ourselves moved by its contents so they must be ‘talking’ to us. The foremost question that stimulates research into picture education is where in the patterns of the image might these hidden meanings reside? These meanings must constitute a non-textual language but how do we read it?   Is our understanding of this language innate or learnt and can we be certain what the artist was trying to say? How do these inner meanings arise if there is no accompanying text? The following images (Figs 4 & 5), which could be tagged with:


and/or #belongingness,

in order to highlight these questions.

Fig 4 The rush for gems in Madagascar

Fig 5 Polluting the seas: the enormity of cosumerism

(Rescue Mission Planet Earth)


4 Rescue Mission Planet Earth

Action post Rio 1992

Shortly after the first global environment summit of 1992 held in Rio de Janeiro, a group of young people gathered together at the UK headquarters of the educational charity Peace Child International. They were funded by the UN to produce a young people’s version of Agenda 21, which was entitled ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’. It was published on International Earth Day in 1994.  This initiative was mounted in recognition that mass education for sustainability and resilience, starting at the primary level, was going to be essential for future generations to make the necessary behavioural changes for carrying forward the strategic management plan for human survival in peace, equity and wellbeing, endorsed by the world community.

However, then, and now,  the education systems of the West, which have been adopted by the developing nations, were designed for unlimited global economic expansion and therefore they contribute to unsustainable living. This happens through a lack of opportunity for learners in the classroom to question their own lifestyles and the systems and structures that promote those lifestyles. Their curriculum is designed to produce individuals to fit into modern society with consumerist and competitive values.  The mismatch between education and reality also happens through reproducing unsustainable models and practices to promote economic growth. The recasting of world development, therefore, calls for the reorientation of education towards cross curricular systems thinking . The aim of Rescue Mission Planet Earth (RePE) was to create a self-learning network of young people as a force to conserve the planet’s resources, using the Agenda 21 and the controversies surrounding its adoption, particularly in the United States, as an educational framework to discuss the issues surrounding the concept of sustainable development.

In Wales the RePE book stimulated teachers and students in the county of Dyfed to develop a practical scheme for harnessing the National Curriculum to meet the objectives of the Local Agenda 21. The scheme developed as an all-Wales bilingual programme named SCAN (Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network) as a practical element within an online cross curricular educational framework called Cultural Ecology.

The practical outcome of the deliberations of the UN funded RePE group was to establish a global democracy of children.  They expressed it in this way, starting with a quote from Warren Lindner, Director of the Center for Our Common Future;

If I was a child today. I’d be worried. If you think you can solve the problems we face by recycling a few cans, you’ll get to 2040 and find you’ve been duped. The world will be a mess because you won’t have dealt with the main problem which is the widening gap between rich and poor. The great challenge of the 21st century is to reduce your consumption or face war between rich and poor.

“As we edited this book, we thought of the thousands of kids who have worked on it who’d like to be here with us now. We’ve read their summaries, seen their pictures and they’ve inspired us. We’d like kids everywhere to become a part of this Rescue Mission, to get access to leaders with their ideas and concerns. It cannot just be an elite. There’s only one way to do this in a fair way: to build a Global Democracy of Children”.

The RePE group relied heavily on the report, ‘Our Common Future, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987).  The Commissioners were serving a notice, an urgent notice based on the latest and best scientific evidence, that the time had come to take the decisions needed to secure the resources to sustain the coming generation.  Their hope for the future was conditional on immediate and decisive political action now to begin managing environmental resources to ensure both sustainable human progress and human survival.

Controversy post Rio

There’s a much misinformation about what exactly Agenda 21 is – or more importantly isn’t.  Put simply it is a broad voluntary and non-binding blueprint for sustainable development. The  document very deliberately eschewed controversy.  Nothing in this document compels a state, local and national government to do anything. It is not treaty and it has no force of law.  Although Agenda 21 is a proposed plan that is non-binding and cannot compel a government to act it is regarded by many (especially on the Left) as a collection of highly desirable ideals and ideas and as a violation of sovereignty, democracy, and human achievement by others (mainly the Right).  This adds an extra debating dimension to RePE, because the politicization of Agenda 21, particularly in the United States, indicates how difficult it has been, and will be in the future to bring it universally into the mainstream of human development.  There have even been calls for RePE to be banned in the US because it would pollute children’s minds, swamping the ideals of individual freedom enshrined in the American Constitution.

The fact is that Agenda 21 has become a big issue with conspiratorialists. The claim is that this UN framework will lead to destruction of sovereignty for nations in the name of “sustainability.” The reality is this UN program simply has no teeth. Lots of localities are voluntarily joining this sustainability campaign because the world needs some sort of environmental direction. Nations and local places have the freedom to decide for themselves the path to be taken.  

Ending of the age of plenty

What has come to pass since 1992 is that the age of plenty for most people in the world has disappeared over the economic horizon because although global wealth has increased it has done so with a rise in income inequality with environmental damage being increasingly evident through climate instability. The Equality Trust Research Digest in 2011 put it this way:

  • UK income inequality increased by 32% between 1960 and 2005. During the same period, it increased by 23% in the USA, and in Sweden decreased by 12%.
  • In the 1960s Sweden and the UK had similar levels of income inequality. By 2005 the gap between the two had increased by 28%.
  • Since the 1980s income inequality in the United States and the UK has increased substantially and has returned to levels not seen since the 1920s.
  • The growth in inequality in the last 30 years has been driven by the top 1% of wage incomes.
  • Inequality measures drawn from standard household surveys underestimate income inequality by as much as 10 percentage points, due to the under–representation of the top 1% of incomes.
  • There is scope for governments to tackle inequality. Large income inequalities are not inevitable; Sweden owes its high levels of equality to policies introduced since the 50s.

Taken together, half of the global population owned less than 1% of total wealth.  In 2014 the richest 85 people across the globe shared a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population (Fig 6). Inequalities in income and wealth on this scale cause economic instability, a range of health and social problems, and create a roadblock to the adoption of pro-environment strategies and behaviour.  Social and economic inequalities tear the social fabric, undermine social cohesion and prevent nations, communities and individuals from flourishing.

Fig 6 A model on a luxury yacht at a boat show in the port of Dalian. China now has more people in the top 10% of global wealth holders than any other country. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Rescue Mission continues

In 1994 the REPE Group envisaged that their mission would require the following global networking structure.

They pondered on the way their objective could be attained.

“How?! How on earth could 2.5 billion human beings under the age of 18 be connected in a way that would be democratic without being bureaucratic? How could we enter in the adults’ decision-making process without starting to be as boring as them? The first thing to do is to select issues not representatives. That way, we can all choose what we want to talk about, after which the question of who does the talking is less important. The first place to organize is in our schools. Each Rescue Mission will start with a conference where we would decide the issues and elect a small action council to see things get done. Like the children’s councils in France, we will have regular access to local government and work with them, perhaps to organize the Local Agenda 21”.  

In summary, the aim of RePE was to create a new place of interaction and communication among young people across the globe. Individuals gathering locally would share their knowledge, opinions, and experiences within the common interest of rescuing Earth and its living systems from a downward spiral.  The hope was that people interacting with one another would have a widespread impact on behavior through the communication of ideas and achievements for living sustainably.  In a nutshell this is also the objective in establishing this virtual space for Rescue Mission on the Internet.  RePE involved planning this network on a global scale, but in the early 1990s the Internet was in its infancy and there was no way such a network could spread using paper media and telephone to engage young people everywhere.  

Since 1994 there have been a few attempts to establish local youth groups dedicated to living sustainably.  These local efforts  have been organised by NGOs from the top and have relied on paper media to spread their message.  Needless to say, no international movement has appeared from the bottom as was envisaged in the original RePE.  

One of the most persistent local responses has been Rescue Mission Planet Wales, which was launched in 1995, sponsored by industry, local government and the Countryside Council for Wales. It soon became clear that even within a small country like Wales a Rescue Mission had to make use of the Internet.  To this end an educational wiki was produced by teachers to access the REPE book and provide teacher training materials.  Administration of the organisation was eventually taken on by the National Museum of Wales where it was developed pragmatically as a practical way to get schools involved with tracking local climate change.  Currently thousands of school scientists are taking part in this investigation, which uses the flowering of spring bulbs to determine how climate change is affecting spring flowering. Since October 2005, school scientists across Wales have been keeping weather records and noting when their flowers open, as part of this long-term study looking at the effects of temperature on spring bulbs. The data base for the project is maintained by the National Museum.  Since 2017 the project has spread into England and Scotland.  Despite its success as a scientific investigation, the objective is still remote from the inclusive global network of young people envisaged by the original RePE team.

To celebrate, and continue the Rescue Mission initiative in 2017, International Classrooms On Line supported by The Bellamy Fund has relaunched RePE using social media.  The following two mind maps outline the international model being developed (Figs

Fig 6 The network

Fig 7 The resources (mostly free)

The need for global coproduction

The world’s environmental problems are greater than the sum of those in each country. Certainly, they can no longer be dealt with purely on a nation-state basis.  The primary role of Rescue Mission Planet Earth in 1994 was to strike at this fundamental problem by getting young people involved in recommending and lobbying specific ways for countries to cooperate to surmount sovereignty, to embrace international instruments in order to deal with global threats. Humanity has only two options on how to progress from here. We either need to drastically slow our growth or find new ways to feed, power and heal an ever expanding population.  Everybody knows that we must make the transition to a low-carbon economy one way or another.

Humanity reached its first billion people back in 1804. By 1927 this number had doubled, and by 1960 it was three billion. Today the global population stands at just under 7.3 billion, and it is projected to reach 9 billion by 2040 and 11 billion by 2050.  The trend in population growth is happening alongside a growing trend towards isolationism.  This demonstrates that the biological rhythm of history is out of harmony with human aspirations, even with its chances for survival. The challenge ahead for rescuing our planet is for future generations to transcend the self-interests of their respective nation-states so as to embrace a broader self-interest , the survival of the the greatest numbers on a threatened planet that is rapidly reaching its ecological limits.   Alongside this project young people also have a role to play in shaping the lives of future generations and achieving the dream, the goal humankind has set for itself : to continuously excel and constantly achieve human betterment whilst satisfying the unfailing curiosity to know the outer universe and the inner world of creative consciousness.


5  Internet references

Grass and Walt Whitman’s ‘circle of life’

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

Skomer Grass I

Skomer Island National Nature Reserve is an offshore scrap of mentally energising volcanic rocks set in the wild seas pounding the south west corner of Wales.  It is a sombre place clothed in greens, grays and browns.  Occasionally it is flushed with amazing sunsets and deep blue horizons of sea and sky,  This small piece of land can be thought of as a secular place having no historic or archaeological connection with the Celtic saints who evangelised the mainland from other Welsh islands, yet it was settled at least a millennium before the birth of Christ. Most visitors today come to experience the wildness of the sea birds that nest there in prodigious numbers.  Nevertheless to cross over a turbulent Jack Sound isolating Skomer from the mainland, is to make sacred voyages of the mind, which are experiential journeys deep into the Spirit of places with a strong past.  These are responses you can get, if you are lucky, when visiting ancient places elsewhere.   Musing on the island’s farmers who, tuned to the tides and winds, had to regularly row across the Sound in times past, can generate a state of mindfulness.  Pondering on the relevance of shared experience, and its ability to potentially transcend barriers of space and mortality, gives Skomer a temple quality not of this time and place.

One of the first people to express this state of mind in art was the American 19th century poet Walt Whitman in his work  “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.   Whitman was an outstanding American who felt at one with nature and in most of his poems he tried to encompass the connection between nature and humanity. Reminding himself that others have seen, and fifty years from now will still be seeing, the islands of New York City, he realizes that others have also shared his range of emotional and spiritual experience. This makes him significant as an individual but also part of a larger whole.

Skomer Grass II

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

This poem seeks to determine the relationship of human beings to one another across time and space. Whitman wonders what he means, not as a poet but as another anonymous individual, to the crowds of strangers he sees every day. He assumes that they see the same things he does, and that they react in the same way, and that this brings them together in a very real sense.  This kind of thinking is amplified through contact with wildness; a wildness not of the African savanna but of a neglected lawn dressed in its bare patches and invading weeds.  

Skomer Grass III

These transformational life-changing experiences take place on all islands where the veils between humanity and nature are thinner and where miraculous reorientations of urban attitudes and behaviours regularly happen.  On Skomer itself such a reorientation comes about because the surface is dominated by the socialising of wild creatures with untamed grassland, littered with the desiccated corpses of seabirds and rabbits.  The resemblances of the grasses to oats, rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for millennia, connects the visitor dynamically to the first prehistoric farmers who have left evidence of their small community as stone walls networked to a family of round houses.  Nestling in the wild grassland and dense bracken of a sub maritime habitat, these archaeological remains spark feelings of humanity’s oneness with nature because they are now a significant part of  unmanaged ecosystems.

Today we would call Walt Whitman an ecological poet who was trying to express in words the dynamic biochemical cultural relationships we have with the material world of the soil and stars.  He often refers to humanity being part of the circle of life, believing in the idea that in terms of our chemical makeup humans never really die.  “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” is one poem where he relates himself and humankind to nature.   In this poem, he offers the idea that we are part of the chemistry of nature, which is flowing through the life forms around us. One line reads, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air…”   

Skomer Grass IV

Whitman makes something mundane, like grass, seem extraordinary and unusual. He takes this seemingly inconsequential object and imbues it with meaning, making it a symbol for the human condition. By doing this, he challenges his readers to take a moment to ponder the world around us, just like children learning about nature for the first time.

In “A child said What is the grass? ” he responds with another question  “What has become of people who have died”.  His answer is, they are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout incorporating some of the chemistry of human breath says there is really no death.  In other words we have a temporary existence as part of a chemical sequence of beings, maintained through evolution as a series of temporary biochemical steady states.  Like a candle flame that is burning steadily as wax enters and leaves as carbon dioxide and water, there is a steady coming and going of the elements of the bodies of all living things.  In life and death elements passing through humans day by day and year on year, are quickly incorporated into other life forms.  Whitman develops the concept that we are part of a chemical circle of life that goes on, even after death. For instance, in “The spotted hawk swoops by. ” he says that when we die, we become part of the non-living world from whence we came. If he is missed after death, we will find him under our shoes!. To finish his poem he says, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you. ”

Skomer Grass V

In “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Whitman compares humans to a spider in nature.  He says as spiders throw out their web, so do we also try to throw out our “web” to make connections with the universe. He says that humankind is, “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them…”   His poems are his attempt to encourage us to maintain this effort of creative inquiry into our origins and our fate, which makes us human

A child said, What is the grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

The poem begins with a child asking a simple question: “What is the grass?” The speaker contemplates that it is hard for him to answer, since he hardly knows any better than the child does. He goes on to ponder possible responses to the query. First, he calls the grass “the flag of my disposition,” woven from his own hopes. Then he calls it the “handkerchief the Lord,” intended to remind us of His power. Next he muses that the grass is also child of the vegetation. He then calls it a “uniform hieroglyphic,” pointing out that it grows around all people regardless of race or identity. Then, he writes that the grass seems like the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

Skomer Grass VI

He pronounces that he will “tenderly use” the grass, considering the possibilities of its origin. It may have come from the breasts of young men whom he might have loved. It may have grown out of the remains of old people, women, or children who died too young. He remarks that the grass is very dark to have come from the white hair of old mothers or the colourless beards of old men. The speaker wishes he could translate the hints grass gives about the individuals who lie beneath it. He asks for the reader’s opinion on what happened to these men, women, and children but then answers his own question. He decides that they are alive and well somewhere; the sprouts of the grass indicate that death is not permanent because it leads to new life. He then concludes that death is different and much “luckier” in passing its substance on to other life, than he had previously believed.

Though the majority of the poem is made up of the possible ways to define the grass, the third-to-last stanza contains the speaker’s own question.  What has become of the dead buried in the ground? In the following two stanzas, he answers this question himself.

Skomer Grass VII

This poem contains traces of the global ideals that resonate throughout Whitman’s poetry, notably in the stanza in which he suggests that the grass is a “uniform hieroglyph” that can unite people regardless of race, occupation, or social status. He reminds his reader that nature connects all human beings and the divisions between us are superficial. The line,

” I give them the same, I receive them the same” represents Whitman’s recommendation that human beings take a cue from the grass and treat one another equally.

Skomer Grass VIII

Death is a major theme in this poem, which takes the child’s innocent query into a much darker place. Whitman incorporates all facets of the human condition into his poetry because, in his opinion, death is a major part of life and nature. Whitman showcases his belief that death marks a beginning rather than an ending. The grass grows, dies, and is reborn in a constant cycle, and Whitman believes that human life is the same.  This is the contemporary message of Skomer to its visitors.  Every year the visual impact of its grassy ecosystems is different as new patches of colour and form appear, only to disappear in following years.  A regular visitor will remember seeing swathes of dead grass, which were followed by a revitalising  greening up succession involving a few common species that bring the island full circle back to what it looked like before being disturbed by changes in the weather or mortality of rabbits.  Other changes in vegetation seem to be progressive, tracking climate change as an indication of a mainland economy organised to gratify our immediate wants, which grow year by year, paying no attention to the cycle of life which sets the ecological limits within which we all must live.

Skomer Grass IX

Skomer Grass X

Skomer Grass XI



Bird’s-eye ecological microcosms

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

Ecology and visual culture

Visual culture is the aspect of human culture that is created and expressed in visual images.  Visual ecology is the study of how animals, including humans, use visual systems to meet their ecological needs, how these systems have evolved, and how they are specialized for particular visual tasks. This highlights the fundamental importance of visual culture in defining the human ecological niche.  Human visual ecology is therefore the study of the visual relationship and interactions between humans and their environment.  It considers the ecological, evolutionary, historical and socio-political dimensions of different people’s engagement with each other and their surrounding environment using visual media.  Not the least of these interactions is discovering the visual beauty of environmental mysteries.  

Increasingly visual media are dominated by computer-dependent information technology. In an interview with the Journal of Visual Culture, Martin Jay explained the rise of the marriage between technology and the visual as follows:

“Insofar as we live in a culture whose technological advances abet the production and dissemination of such images at a hitherto unimagined level, it is necessary to focus on how they work and what they do, rather than move past them too quickly to the ideas they represent or the reality they purport to depict. In so doing, we necessarily have to ask questions about … technological mediations and extensions of visual experience”.

Digital technology has certainly produced a radical change in the conditions of visuality and the subsequent transformation of a person’s perception of the world into images.  Digital images now enfold people in their domestic and wider social environments.  In this sense they are an increasingly powerful component defining the human ecological niche.  They now participate in the making of mental worlds and have become forms of thought constituting a new kind of knowledge, one that is grounded in visual communication and thereby dependent on perception, demanding the development of the optical mind.  Seeing  puts things in the mind’s eye and casts a particular power over place.  In particular, it reveals the hidden, conveys precision and offers control to the observing eye.  This is why overhead satellite imagery and drone cameras are now closely associated with scientific and managerial approaches to the environment.  In this sense digital imagery engages the eye with new visual experiences aimed to promote a holistic meaning or message.

A collection of pictures deliberately assembled by an individual, may be thought of as a ‘data island’ whether or not it defines a real island.  The brain starts to make sense of it, attempting to turn the images into a pattern, trying to construct a reality from the pictorial signals available to it.  From this angle, John Gillis argues that real islands have played an essential role in Western culture, which “not only thinks about islands, but thinks with them”    Islands are distinct worlds, miniatures of large communities where different issues are closely related to one another, in which it is easier to recognize the links between culture, economy, society and nature in contexts of insularity,  The important thing is that islands of knowledge enter the minds of most people through collections of pictures.  

Understanding a small island community is not easy, whether it is your own, a collaborating island or one that you only visit.   The long standing complex relationship between islands and fiction writing illuminates some of the seemingly infinite connections between the mind and the environment which, like gradually eroding strata on a sea cliff, continue to unfold before us and yield new treasures. The plethora of such images has promoted the artfulness in people.  An example is Sarah Nordean’s ‘The Islands’, which could be seen as a collection of these sorts of mental maps.  Relationships between objects are not always geographic relationships of measured direction and distance. A memory of a flower or a broken down wall can be as important as the weave of a streambed.  

In ‘The Islands’, Nordean explores the relationship between image making and our connection to space and place. Considering place from afar as well as from within, from a macro and a micro perspective, she is curious about how we organize and classify our environment, as well as how we experience places first hand.  Nordean’s process begins with walking through spaces while recording her movements using GPS, then using these “drawings” as compositional elements for her visual works. This project began as an exploration into parks and green spaces within Calgary, and how these spaces interact with their urban surroundings. It evolved into something more personal, encompassing daily practice and a connectedness to place. She says her art works from ‘The Islands’ are linked through continual movement, repetition in returning to the same places again and again, and a rhythm of step and breath.  In this respect the Island Series displayed on her web site is  an example of Open Data.  Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.  Open Data has primarily been seen in terms of large entities and ‘big’ data: however islands and other isolated communities have a lot to gain and much to give from an Open Data, perspective,  This was the perspective which led to the creation of a mind map of the small offshore Welsh island of Skomer to mark the an anniversary of it being declared a national nature reserve.  It was intended to highlight the four flows of data necessary to connect an island, large or small, with the wider world and begin the development of an educational model to explore the technological mediations and extensions of visual experience.  The four flows of data are:

  • from the community to the world;
  • from the world to the community;
  • within the community;
  • between communities.

This blog concentrates on the role of digital imagery in the analysis of surface topography to generate an interdisciplinary understanding.


Bird’s-eye microcosms

Geographical places and their physical features are sites of remembering, where landscape operates as a storehouse for personal and collective memory.

The artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), who wrote extensively on the aesthetics and philosophy of modern art, identified the aerial landscape (especially the “bird’s-eye view”, looking straight down, as opposed to an oblique angle) as a genuinely new and radicalising paradigm in art of the twentieth century. In his view, air travel, and more specifically, aerial photography had created this broad change in scenic consciousness. The Italian Futurists were similarly fascinated with aerial views of landscapes.

Unlike traditional landscapes, aerial landscapes often do not include any view of a horizon or sky, nor in such cases is there any recession of the view into an infinite distance. Additionally, there is a natural kinship between aerial landscape painting and abstract painting, not only because familiar objects are sometimes difficult to recognize when viewed aerially, but because there is no natural “up” or “down” orientation in the painting..

The Cornish painter and glider pilot, Peter Lanyon, imagines being hundreds of feet above the Penwith Peninsula as a bird, wings spread, with wisps of cloud, and fields and hedges far below represented in a style that straddles the figurative and the abstract (Fig 1).   Another interpretation of this painting is that it encapsulates a body of interdisciplinary knowledge about Cornish cultural ecology of the lands to the south of St Ives.

Fig 1  ‘Bird Wind’, Peter Lanyon (1955)

It is only recently that science and art have come together in the presentation and analysis of the surface landscape.  The methodology and  evidence is that of aerial survey. The first aerial photograph to obtain geographical information was taken of a French village and its surroundings in the late 19th century. The man who took the picture was photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon.  He patented the concept of using aerial photographs to compile maps.  The invention was to prove much more effective than the time-consuming ground surveys that had then been used by national mapping organisations that developed throughout the 19th century. George R. Lawrence took aerial photographs of San Francisco in 1906 following the devastating earthquake, but it was not until World War I,  when potentially military applications were foreseen, that a systematic process of taking aerial photographs would become key to the development of the photographic method for obtaining environmental information.  Science meets up with art in digital technology when an artwork is produced from an aerial photograph taken in an ecological survey. (Fig 2).

Fig 2. Skomer: ‘photoshopped art’ from snapshot of grassland taken from a helicopter

Archaeology has gained the most from the application of aerial survey to reveal buried remains of earthworks and buildings, but there have been few collaborations between archaeologists and ecologists in understanding the common ground between the two professions.  One such collaboration was initiated in the 1980s, when biologist Denis Bellamy and archaeologist John Evans explored the the impact of prehistoric farmers in the creation of the fixed point ecological microcosms we see today.  The site was Skomer, a small offshore island in West Wales, which in prehistoric times had been home to a small number of farming families, A commonplace ‘Galapagos’ dignified by its outstanding sea bird colonies and a subspecies of the mainland bank vole.   The first farmers divided up the island with a system of stone walls interlocking with low narrow outcrops of volcanic strata.  The remains of their activities provide a sense of the visual language required to explore the environmental dilemmas at the heart of our globalized world. They are the things we have left behind.  As part of our visual culture they tell us that everything we do to survive leaves an imprint on the land.   Edward Burtynsky is one of a modern generation of photographers who use aerial images to seek to portray the visible outcomes of a globalized economy and humankind’s impact on environments around the world.  The Burtynsky visual perspective tells us although we have moved on from the old words to the new ages: the Information Age and the Biological Age of nature conservation , the Stone Age and the Iron Age and the Copper Age are all alive and well, and expanding manufactured landscapes on a scale that from a bird’s eye view is visually breathtaking.

In describing the message of his images Burtynsky says it’s like our consciousness is forging ahead into the new world.  He thinks that it’s those old worlds that can come up from behind us and undercut our ambition.

“So, to me, the work is this meditation, is this walking through those worlds, through these wastelands that have been left behind, through that residual kind of place in the world where the taking has happened and we’ve walked away, and try to remind us that there is this other side to the built world that we have. And it’s out there, and it’s largely forgotten and abandoned, and not ever actually even seen as a subject. Very few have actually treated it as a subject.”

In terms of making a studied response to these old words made large we are failing to respond to the problem of human survival.  Our brains worked fine in Neolithic times, when if we saw immediate danger, we knew what to do.  We are now encountering something we have never encountered before and have little capacity to understand with our primitive brains.  As we drive comfortably in our cars from home to work it’s hard for a driver to imagine that  if she leaves the car at home it’s making a difference, even if she understands the science behind global warming.  We are particularly good at acting on threats that can be linked to a human face, that present themselves as unexpected, dramatic or immediate, The slow pace of climate change as well as the delayed, intangible and statistical natures of its risks simply do not move us as individuals to change our behaviour,


Ecological microcosms

As the largest terrestrial ecosystem on Earth, grassland is associated closely with many of the most challenging environmental and ecological problems that humankind will face during the next several decades at a global scale. These include desertification, land degradation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It is vitally important that better long term temporal inventories are obtained of grassland and that improved surveillance and monitoring with relative accuracy takes place, so that sustainable, long term  grassland management is achieved. However, due to its great expanse and diversity, rapid and low-cost evaluation and management techniques are required. For this reason, remote sensing technology provides a powerful tool for producing an inventory, managing it and monitoring outcomes.

Remote sensing has been recommended for at least 30 years for use in the management of grassland resources on a worldwide basis. The first black and white aerial photography became available for investigating grassland as a resource in 1935. Remote sensing developed into a science in the mid to late 1960. The launch of Landsat 1 in 1972 ushered in a new era extending remote sensing beyond air photo interpretation into the realm of digital analysis of multispectral and multitemporal data. A literature survey shows that 407 papers on grassland remote sensing were recorded by CABI information database from 1995 to 1999.

The application of remote sensing technology covers land classification and changes in grassland-use, grassland productivity-assessment, conservation and recreation, detection and monitoring of stress caused by fire, drought and pests.   Today, remote sensing, along with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have provided a powerful and sophisticated approach to the utilization, development and management of grassland resources throughout the world.

The fine details of a rabbit burrow microcosm had been defined by Mary Gillham in her research on the island of Skokholm in the 1940-50s. She had placed a rabbit proof exclosure between five burrows in a patch of degenerating Armeria. (Fig 3).   Her map depicts the exclosure in the sixth summer after its erection.  Regarding its complex dynamics she says:

“Festuca in the interim had occupied practically the whole area except the north-west corner which was exposed to the prevailing winds and close to a burrow entrance. As the burrow system was extended by puffins and rabbits the Armeria reinvaded locally above its ramifications, and with it the perennial, deep- rooted Spergularia rupicola which is one of its commonest associates in all burrowed areas, although seldom abundant because of its palatability to grazing animals. Rumex species are also able to resist the Festuca in the ungrazed vegetation over burrows, whilst Poa annua, Stellaria media and Erodium maritimum may invade temporarily as the Festuca succumbs.”

Fig 3.  The relationship of ungrazed vegetation to the underlying burrows. Rabbit-proof enclosure, N.E. Skokholm, July 1953  (Giillham, 1956).

Gillham’s research was mainly concerned with the impact on vegetation of the faecal nutrients from nesting colonial seabirds.  Although only a mile away along the coast from Skomer, the island of Skokholm is more exposed to South Westerly air flows and is like a promenade regarding the impact of gale driven waves and salt spray.   In this respect, Skomer although only two miles away to the South has sheltered valleys and rocky outcrops and therefore responds to weather variations in more diverse ways.

The vegetation of Skomer Island was first surveyed on the ground by J Sadd and presented as a bird’s eye view of the surface of the island  in 1947.  The map makes a scientific statement that the ground cover was about equally shared between sub maritime grassland and dense stands of bracken with a scattering of small areas of  heather heath (Fig 4). From the mapped distribution of these habitats bracken seems to be more dominant in the north east of the island with grassland more common in the south west. A glance at the current Google satellite image suggests that the distribution of these two habitat features has changed little in the last 70 years (Fig 5).  The positions of the  bracken areas are controlled by shelter from south westerly winds.

Fig 4 Ground survey of Skomer’s vegetation (J Sadd, 1947)

Fig 5 Skomer: Google satellite image, 2017

Blue line is part of the footpath network

Within a global context, the treeless island of Skomer is currently classed as a Western Eurasian Thicket, maintained dynamically by a combination of south westerly maritime air flows and heavy rabbit grazing.  In the classification of Palaearctic habitats Skomer may be described holistically at the present time as an arrested succession towards Atlantic Blackthorn/Bramble Scrub.   The bìg question is how bracken heath and grassland have coexisted in a dynamic equilibrium  for such a long time without management.  This question will be answered through long term aerial surveillance of the vegetation patchwork to assess the stability of patch boundaries and the life strategies of the plant species in border microcosms.

The culling of rabbits  was prohibited when Skomer became a national nature reserve in 1958.  By the 1980s, at the Wick and North of Skomer Head, rabbit activity had stripped the peaty soil of the coastal slopes down to bare rock.  A rabbit exclosure at Skomer Head showed dramatically the difference that unchecked rabbits had made.  Inside, there was a 0.5 metre deep development of a monoculture of  fescue peat (Festuca rubra), which contrasted with the surrounding bare soil, rock and the patchy colonisation by the rabbit avoided species listed above.  Several Shearwaters had burrows inside the exclosure highlighting the fact that rabbits had destroyed a considerable area of its nesting habitat along this part of the coastal slopes

Because it is only about two miles wide and relatively flat, Skomer is an ideal habitat for aerial surveys,  which can easily be accessed and truthed as microcosms on the ground from a network of visitor footpaths.  In this context the production of the 1947 vegetation map by J. Sadd is a remarkable achievement.   It delineates the island as a botanical patchwork of ecological compartments comprising about a dozen common plants (Table.1)

Table 3.1  Common plants of of the Skomer microcosms

Species Common name
Calluna vulgaris Ling Heather
Holcus lanatus Yorkshire Fog
Silene dioica Red Campion
Glechoma hederacea Ground Ivy
Teucrium scorodonia Woodsage
Armeria maritima Thrift
Silene maritima Sea Campion
Rumex acetosella Sheep’s Sorrel
Endymion non-scriptus Bluebell
Matricaria maritima Scentless Mayweed
Agrostis/Festuca community Rabbit occupied grassland
Arrhenatherum, elatus False Oat

The ecological compartmented microcosms have been simplified to produce a map of 20 topographical divisions for locating observations and projects (Fig 6).  In the centre of the island these divisions coincide with the fields laid out in the 19th century to create a ‘modern’ farm linked with the mainland economy.  At the time of Sadd’s survey the commercial farming enterprise was utilising the central fields to grow early potatoes for the mainland market.  This venture provides a baseline of zero biodiversity for at least three of the fields (compartments 4,5, 6, & 18) from which their present wildness has developed over the following six to seven decades.

Fig 6.  Skomer: topographical compartments

It is probably significant that Sadd records areas of burnt heath north of the farm.  This is indicative of management of heather for livestock grazing.  It is known that cattle grazed the outer regions of the island at this time, and Sadd mentions there were also sheep and goats.

Walking round the island today, it doesn’t  take long to recognise that some of the local botanical patchwork is related to geological features.  Persistent grassland often occurs in the immediate vicinity of rock outcrops.  It also becomes clear that human activity has produced subtle ecological patterns and that some of the impacts have been transient.  The was the case for Compartment 8 in the 1970s, where grassland managed with ridge and furrow had been colonised by heather.  It flourished along the ridges but was absent from the troughs.  Over the next decade or so the heather was displaced by bracken, a trend that instigated a management reaction aimed at protecting the incipient heathland from rabbits.  Rabbits, were introduced by the Norman lords of Haverford West as a commercial enterprise to produce meat and fur and every part of the island is now dominated by rabbit grazing.  Rabbits are not managed and their impact is assessed by establishing fenced exclosures.

Today one often comes across ecological differences across man-made boundaries, recorded as the loss of species or changes in their relative density (Fig 7).  There are patches of nettles alongside hut circles. Scatterings of nettles are also found in some small prehistoric fields.  Nettles are evidence of soil phosphate, which originates from waste disposal and livestock dung.  Are these the outcomes of the behaviour of prehistoric farmers that have persisted as local differences in soil chemistry for thousands of years?

Fig 7  Differences in density of Red Campion and Bracken across a prehistoric lynchet south of the Garland Stone (1980: Compartment 3)

In the 1980s good examples of small scale patchworks could be observed in Compartment 12 (Fig 8).    

Fig 8  A diverse ecological microcosm (compartment 12, 1987)

With the advent of satellite mapping the patchiness of bracken in grassland was obvious in the 2017 Google map of Compartments 16, 17 & 18 (Figs 9 and 10)

Fig  9 Compartment 16 (Google satellite map,, 2017)

Fig 10  Compartments 17 & 18 (Google satellite map, 2017)

Regarding ground truthing, the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) is one of the key common standards developed for nature conservation agencies that takes a macrocosm view of botanical diversity. The original project was initiated to produce a comprehensive classification and description of the plant communities of Britain, each systematically named and arranged and with standardised descriptions for each.  It was originally commissioned in 1975 by the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and was intended as a new classification, not an attempt to fit British plant communities into some existing scheme derived from elsewhere in Europe. The general approach adopted was phytosociological and, therefore, concentrated on the rigorous recording of floristic data. It did, nevertheless, try to avoid over-scrupulous selection of samples, rejection of awkward data and preoccupation with the hierarchical taxonomy of vegetation types  Quadrats are used to collect data on the abundance and frequency of each plant species. This information is then analysed using NVC community/sub-community descriptions. Each NVC habitat type then uniquely defines a macrocosm as a particular statistical combination of frequency and abundance values.  

A quadrat-based approach was applied to survey Skomer’s vegetation in 1979 based on a random distribution of 270 sampling sites of which  90 were made permanent. The plants common to this survey are listed in Table 1.

The results did not fit any of the NVC categories, which was to be expected because  there was no rejection of awkward data and the averages do not match the obvious patchwork perceived visually as local high levels of diversity produced by the activities of rabbits.  In 1998, 76 of the quadrats were re-surveyed for the six main species and 13 were analysed in 2015. Due to time constraints and the fact that the position of most plots is unknown, only 13 were surveyed in 2015. Much time was spent searching for the plot markers. Because of the small numbers of quadrats that were actually found no firm conclusions were possible regarding temporal trends in species abundance.  This testifies to  the futility of trying to organise long term surveillance by positioning quadrats on a map without precise grid references that can be readily re-visited.  

Therefore, there is only anecdotal evidence as to long term changes in the surface landscape.  In this context, there has been a great loss of maritime heath.   Up until the last farming episode on Skomer in the 1940-50s maritime heath had been maintained by a combination of grazing, probably by sheep, and periodic burning.  These operations were likely to have been managed at relatively low densities of culled rabbits, which had always been controlled by owners and tenants by shooting and trapping them.  Sadd only mentions the impact of rabbits when he described Compartment 9, which was definitely not grazed by farm livestock.  

The abolition of the livestock production system and the banning of rabbit culling when the island became a nature reserve could have been responsible for the gradual loss of heathland.  Uncut heather has a relatively short lifespan, It is possible that in recent years climate change may also have played a part in its degeneration.


Microcosms of ‘Mother Nature’

From the Stockholm conference on sustainable development  to Rio +20, the term “Nature” rarely features in the international discourse outlining strategies for limiting the damages to the environment while promoting economic development. This is not simply a matter of semantics. The World Charter for Nature, [Adopted by the General Assembly October 1982] and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth [Adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia in 2010] are ignored in the Declarations of the subsequent , respective World Summits on the Environment and Sustainable Development. We really do need to give more weight to the concept of ‘Harmony with Nature’ in the debates on sustainable development. The neglect of “Nature” is at the core of many problems with which we are confronted.  A shift of emphasis in our policies and actions to give greater attention to “Nature,” rather than environment, as such, would give humankind a better holistic ecological strategy of survival.

According to Barbara Sundberg Haudot, coordinator of the Triglav Circle, the following three points support this conviction:

  1. There are two political world views on the relations between humankind and the natural world. One conceives humanity apart, as the steward or master of the “environment.” The other begins with Nature and its visible and invisible manifestations, including humanity.
  2. To approach Harmony with Nature it is imperative to consult other relevant sources of knowledge including philosophy, the arts and religion as well as the physical and social sciences, which currently monopolize the political focus on the “environment,” and how to sustainably develop it.
  3. There are concrete examples of working in harmony with nature that demonstrate the practicality as well as the benefits of considering nature, itself, as an imperative focus of political thinking and action.

The Triglav Circle was established to pursue the discourse begun in the United Nations Seminar on Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress held in Bled, Slovenia, October 1994. The seminar was a step in preparation for the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen, March 1995.  In January 1996, nine of the Seminar participants drew up a constitution for the Triglav Circle. Triglav is the name of the mountain that serves as a national symbol for Slovenia. It was at its base that the Seminar took place. Mount Triglav is the namesake of the three-headed deity who symbolised Love, Spirit, and Wisdom and was always accompanied by his noble stallion, “equus divinus.” The combined symbolism evokes solidarity, responsibility, and humility in the pursuit of a harmonious world community in which ecophilia, love of nature, is at the centre of action. In other words, the love and pleasure of nature instills a fellow-feeling.  The American entomologist Edward 0. Wilson calls this inherent love of all living things ‘biophilia..

Every group of ecophiliacs requires its own Mount Triglav.  In this sense, Skomer Island may be regarded as an example of a geological focus in Wales for the core messages of the Social Summit articulated in the Copenhagen Declaration:   

Our societies must respond more effectively to the material and spiritual needs of individuals, their families, and the communities in which they live…

We are committed to a political, economic, ethical, and spiritual vision for social development that is based on human dignity, human rights, equality, respect, democracy, mutual responsibility and cooperation, and full respect for various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of people.

Since the times of the ancient Egyptians, and before, culture and its relationships to the local environment were a means to give hope to humankind with reassurances, through rituals and rites, about death and the separation from life and its benevolent resources. Civilizations developed harvest rites in order to honour the Earth: these rites have not only ecological and economic benefits, but also psychological ones. By working with symbols and re-enactments to support fantasies of immortality, people create a psychic phenomenon that comforts them.  Moreover, cultural norms, delivered through the rites of passage and rituals, allow human beings to put a distance between themselves and topics too painful to deal with at an individual level, such as death and separation. By providing rules for responding to these ecological situations, culture both protects and heals; it has the ability to connect with our deepest emotions.

Love of nature is a response originating in an attachment to place.  From the Amazonian Yanomami, to the Arctic Inuits and the Namibian San, and even for people in urban areas, deep down we all harbour feelings of belonging to “a land”, and belonging to “the land”. Indeed, attachment to a place, to a scenery, to a soil that has nurtured people for generations, is one of the contributors to our sense of safety and our psychological stability. This need for a locus to lean on is vital to human existence.  Such has been the role of Skomer from prehistory.

In modern tunes, the eco-activist and Nobel Prize recipient Wangari Maathai was among the most audible voices arguing for a reconsideration of nature as a concept deserving dignity and respect, and retribution. Personifying nature, Maathai seems to be calling for a broader perspective on ecological issues, going beyond the traditional economic worries.  She underlines the fight for our humanity and what exactly makes us human, through the fight for nature. These issues emerge on Skomer because of the intensive use of the surface of the island as a home for a few prehistoric families immersed, from time to time,  in the island’s ecosystem, where the topography must have penetrated their primitive religion.  Hence the island has a bearing on the concept of Mother Nature.

Barbara Sundberg Haudot put it this way:

“Now, imagine a world society as immersed in nature as it is in technology, where we use all our senses, where we feel more alive. “Harmony with nature” is not a mere catchphrase: it is an imperative for society. To create more amenable conditions for an ecologically sustainable future in harmony with nature demands considerably more thoughtful reflection, intellectual work, and practical initiatives by governments and civil society.”

In a sense we owe it to these ancient Skomer families to consider their legacy of deep ecology.  Primitive religion is a name given to the dimly understood religious beliefs and practices of those traditional small and, often isolated, preliterate cultures that helped equilibrate them with their limited ecological resources.   They have not developed urban and technologically sophisticated forms of society, but the term does not mean that the religions of those peoples are somehow less complex or less effective than the religions of “advanced” societies. In fact, research carried out among the indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Americas, and sub Saharan Africa have revealed rich and very complex religions, which organize the smallest ecological details of food gathering and reproduction through which Nature, as Mother, governs people’s lives in harmony with the ecosystem services that support them.

This is why the words ‘Mother’ and ‘Nature’, implying harmony between cultures and ecosystems, is the ancient Skomerian’s legacy for introduction into the relevant debates and texts produced for sustainable development by the international community. Surface conditions on Skomer have been, for most of its geological time, produced by life,  This does not mean that “earth is a “life form” in the sense of a self regulating entity of the Gaia Hypothesis.  The Gaia Hypothesis is incorrect.  Organisms do not manipulate deliberately the biophysical systems of which they are a part so they can support them.  Life is produced by natural selection, by the competition between individuals for reproductive success. Evolution has no goal of making Earth a better place for life. Earth was not produced by natural selection, and hence it is not itself a living thing.  Nevertheless, Gaia in its original context in Greek mythology, Gaia also spelled Gaea, is the personification of the Earth as one of the Greek primordial deities is an example of the prehistoric idea of an ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth.  Are we right to think that the first human inhabitants of Skomer brought this idea with them to this small, prosaic Galapagos?


Thinking with rocks

Fig 11. Stonehenge

There is no doubt that stones are common global resources for spiritual journeys.  In this context, stones are rocks used for a particular purpose, such as altar stones and foundation stones, and are given individual names like Stonehenge (Fig 11).  There are three such named stones on Skomer; the Garland Stone, the Mew Stone, and the Pig Stone.  All three lie a few metres off shore.  

Seeking spirituality is a common behavior these days. It is a way of stepping beyond religious divides. To others without religion it is nothing so esoteric. Instead, it is simply reacting to a “feeling” that there must be ‘something else’.  Science has replaced God for many today, but while science may be able to explain the working of a material world, it doesn’t evoke how many people feel about their emotional place in nature.  Awe and wonder is how these people often describe their positive relationship with the world. There’s a sense that life is more than dollars, work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind.  There are moments that seem transcendent; a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.  The experience triggers something within that has evolved to enable humanity to become one with the environment. This feeling of oneness is what most would define as a spiritual experience.  In this context, stones, large and small, are often used as spiritual triggers.  Among archeologists a view is growing that the first peoples on Skomer were part of the culture of the New Stone Age (Neolithic) that focused feelings of spirituality on stones; a  movement that eventually carried the local bluestones of the Preceli Hills to Stonehenge.

The modern visitor’s first impression of Skomer is that it is a special rocky realm.  Visually it is quite distinct from the mainland landscape.  Its narrow parallel ridges of lichen-clad rocks make a dramatic scenic impact that follows the visitor round the island and gives Skomer a distinctive air of ‘otherworldliness’.  On a misty day even someone who knows the island well can lose their bearings.  In this sense a visitor can share a basic visual impact that must have struck the first prehistoric farmers and singled out the island as a special place.

Skomer’s rocks are unique and are thought to have been extruded as a series of lava flows spread out onto the seabed.  They were laid down horizontally as a geological multilayered sandwich consisting of a large number of outflows, one on top of another, each not exceeding a few metres in thickness.  From that time, the land has risen relative to the sea and the volcanic strata have been tilted in a south easterly direction at an angle of 20 to 25 degrees.  It is possible that the mass of lava passed through an uplift phase where the ridges were eroded as marine reefs.  Nature is an aggressor that imposes its arbitrary life-cycle on anything that gets in its way.  

From the time of the first farming settlement down to modern times people arriving on Skomer have been forced into thinking with rocks.  The basic geological puzzle of where and when the Skomer volcano was active came long after the first families arrived with their native spirituality.  The latter was probably very close to a belief system that came to satisfy a basic need for humans to understand that all objects share  the same origin that people share.  This is a very ancient fundamental statement about spirituality which comes close to the cosmologists view on the origins of the universe and the place of humankind within it.   Prehistoric art, that fuses rocks with paintings depicting humans and animals, seems to have been produced when totemism, shamanism blended with everyday life, implying that besides animals and plants even rocks stimulate mental connectedness.  Indeed, rocks and stones have been used  by people as bridges for the retrieval of former cultures and their belief systems. Today, we see this articulated in Aboriginal culture and the nature-spiritualism of Shinto and Buddhism, both of which may have a bearing on the spiritual beliefs of  Skomer’s first human community.  By thinking in this way we are memorialising the dead of Skomer Island in response to the imperative of an inward condition,

An Aboriginal person’s inward condition produces a mind set where the spirit is believed to continue on after the physical form has passed through death.  After death the spirit returns to the  Dreamtime from where it will come back through birth as a human, an animal, a plant or a rock. The form is not important because each form shares the same spirit from the Dreamtime.   There is a similarity of this view to that of Shinto and Buddhism,which are bound together in modern Japanese culture.

Shinto (“the way of the Kami”) is the name of the formal state religion of Japan that was first used in the 6th century C.E., although the roots of the religion go back to at least the 6th century B.C.E. Shinto has no founder, no official sacred texts, and no formalized system of doctrine. It has been formative in developing uniquely Japanese attitudes and sensitivities, creating a distinct Japanese consciousness about the environment. Belief in kami, understood to be spiritual essences joining people and nature, is one of the foundations of Shinto. The spiritual messages actually originate in the observer’s brain where they can elicit feelings of awe and wonder.

The kami exist as imagined beings within mountains, trees, rivers, and even geographical regions. In this sense, the kami are not like the all-powerful divine beings found in Western religion, but the abstract creative forces in nature. Related to the kami is the understanding that the Shinto followers are supposed to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with both nature and other human beings. This has enabled Shinto to exist alongside other religious traditions. As the foundation for Japanese culture, Shinto has also played a significant role in the political realm. For centuries, Shinto religious festivals and ceremonies have become indistinguishable from the affairs of the government.  

It is significant in this context that it was a Japanese artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto who was  inspired to make images that would have been recognizable to primitive man. In doing so, he holds up a mirror to our own identity in the present.   For more than 30 years, Hiroshi Sugimoto has travelled the world photographing its seas, producing an extended meditation on the passage of time and the natural history of the earth reduced to its most basic, primordial substances: water and air. Always capturing the sea at a moment of absolute tranquility, Sugimoto has composed all the black and white photographs identically, with the horizon line precisely bifurcating each image. The repetition of this strict format reveals the uniqueness of each meeting of sea and sky, with the horizon never appearing exactly the same way twice. The photographs are romantic yet absolutely rigorous, apparently universal but exceedingly specific.  By blurring the line between human history and eternity, representation and abstraction, the seascape project takes its place in the traditions of nature photography and achieves the status of a contemporary expression of the sublime.  These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence ‘other than’, an existence which lies ‘beyond’.

History has shown us that there are always those who wish to expand their borders to include additional territory, and those who wish to close them to preclude immigration.  Walls are the inevitable outcome of these behaviours.  Skomer’s drystone walling, separating family from family and crop from crop, has the power to take us back in time, to periods that were slower, less stressed, more in tune with nature and the pace of the natural world.  It is with these aspects of stones in mind that we pick our way through the anatomy of neglected fields, hut circles and a ruined farmhouse; at the end it is a doleful experience which foretells our own earthly absence.  Beyond the wall is the ‘waste’; a cliff-edge no-man’s-land, where sheep go to die. The first naturalist to examine Skomer described it as ‘Golgotha’, a place of bones; the remains of once alive rabbits and shearwaters.  Death is everywhere but leads to life.  Rocks become dust, become clay, become plant, become those that ate the plant.  In the acid volcanic soils bones are rapidly recycled.  Chemically, Skomer is an example of a steady state economy.  Like a candle flame the island burns brightly as a dynamic equilibrium, as the elements pass through rocks, stones and living things each of which has its own half-life measured in aeons and minutes.  Thinking in this way is more complex than consciousness. Consciousness is more complex than awareness. Awareness is more complex than susceptible to influence. These are all expression of time, yet where is the biochemical dividing line between the inorganic oxygen molecules in the air, and the oxygen in your blood, or the iron in the earth, and the iron in your blood?   The air becomes you, and the iron, can travel in you, and leave again. When is it you, and when is it not?


Are you foam, or core of wave?

Serpent’s tooth, or lock of knave?

When were you last fishy fin

Part of happy otter’s grin?

Are you, all of you, everywhere

Sliding down old Darwin’s stair?

When were you last a corral chain

Moose’s head in Maine?

Do you truly know each bit

Of matter making up your wit?

Are not atoms of stellar source

Formed in novae and set on course

Shared in aeons many times

By quetzal birds, critics of rhymes?

Does not the copper in the Earth

Maintain its worth

As part of noble steed

Or the book you read?

What happens after use

Does it return to moose?

Go blow thee high, oh solar wind

Find a place where none have sinned

For they may not reject your ions

Jealous like a pride of lions.

                                                        by Generalist

                                                        ©Copyright 1998


Internet references

Art and visual culture

SKOMER; a brief human history

Are rocks thinking ?

This blog: a work in progress

Skomer Drone Survey

Lure of Islands

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

“Islands have exercised a fascination on the human imagination. Yet today it is possible to identify a positive need for island experience – an island imperative – in whole sectors of society in developed countries. This condition invites the geographer to investigate the nature and fundamental causes of this ‘lure of the island’….. It can be argued that the enhanced impact of islands on the human imagination is not a passing fad: there is rather an essential contribution of, and by, small islands and their inhabitants to the urban and globalised civilisation of our time”

 From an abstract of a  paper by FRANÇOISE PÉRON

For an inhabitant, an island is a space representing spatial clarity and identity.   For a temporary visitor, an island is a small space riddled by puzzling  topographical and infrastructural detail.  But are these differences between the attitudes of natives and visitors clear cut?

Islands, seen from a distance, are first and foremost places of the imagination for residents and visitors alike.  They have always sparked the imagination with notions of danger, adventure, isolation and even perfection. Islands have lured explorers and been the reason for battles between colonizing empires. Islands have given birth to unique cultures, they have prompted scientists and anthropologists with clues to ecological and cultural beginnings.   They have been known to occasionally disappear without a trace.

The tradition of weaving islands into the imagination began with Homer’s Odyssey and  is expressed today with the destinations of modern-day holiday cruises. Islands have come to be master symbols and inexhaustible metaphors for so many different aspects of planetary origins and cultural beginnings.  Contradictory images of islands, range from the allure of the desert island as a paradise where the world can be made anew, to their roles as prisons,  In this respect, from ‘Treasure Island’ to ‘Robben Island’, from the paradise of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ to Napoleon’s purgatory on Elba, islands have proved irresistible to humankind’s imagination since prehistoric times. Occupying a singular place in literature, religion and philosophy, islands exert an insistent grip on the human psyche.

Small islands are at the crossroads of human development.  For example, It was a small uninhabited island in the  English Lake District that inspired the very foundation of the National Trust to protect Britain’s historic heritage: its sale to a private owner frustrated a Lake District admirer so much he vowed never to let it happen again.  This tiny island in Lake Grasmere was the focus for the idea that outstanding landscapes and buildings should be protected from commercial development for the benefit of future generations

Artificial islands have a long history in many parts of the world. They date back to the crannogs of prehistoric Britain and Ireland, the ceremonial centres of Nan Madol in Micronesia, and the still extant floating islands of Lake Titicaca. The city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec predecessor of Mexico City, which was home to 250,000 people when the Spaniards arrived.  It stood on a small natural island in Lake Texcoco that was surrounded by countless artificial chinamitl islands.  These utilized the shallow lagoon’s surface for plant cultivation. They were built on a structure of willow tree reeds whose root systems strengthened the border of the bed. Products included corn, beans, amaranth, squash, chili, tomatoes and aromatic flowers.

Many artificial islands have been built in urban harbours to provide either a site deliberately isolated from the city or just to ease development in a crowded metropolis. An example of the first type of construction is Dejima (or Deshima), built in the bay of Nagasaki during Japan’s Edo period, as a containment centre for European merchants.

The importance of islands in revealing evolutionary processes has been recognized since Darwin’s work on the Galapagos and Wallace’s research in the Malay Archipelago. Since, then, island biogeography has provided many elegant examples of the evolutionary mechanisms involved in generating biodiversity, including geological processes, plant and animal colonization and species isolation. Archipelagos such as Hawaii and the Galapagos provide examples where cycles of evolutionary radiation have produced replicated patterns of endemic, often bizarre, forms. Yet, the extreme isolation of such islands reduces the interplay between islands and continents—interchange is one-way (islands can be sinks) and limited to rare chance dispersal events. The West Indies and island chains in the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Mascarenes) are remarkable as they are sufficiently old and isolated to have generated endemic forms, but close enough continents to sustain a dynamic two-way interaction with diverse continental landmasses.  Size is important in biogeography because small islands have limited land area which restricts the number of habitats.

Small islands have limited land area and are prone to natural hazards which make them highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and extreme events. Their vulnerability is further aggravated by their low adaptive capacity; and the cost of adapting to the changing climate is high as compared to the GDP.  Along with climate related drivers, small urbanised islands are also subjected to important local change agents, such as demographic pressure and urbanization, which increases the demand on the local resource base, thereby making them more vulnerable to the changing climate.

Wildlife islands are a special case.  Charles Darwin called the Galápagos Islands “a little world within itself.”  He was acknowledging that the islands were the outcomes of a sequence of volcanic eruptions, which were occupied by a random oceanic drift of plants and animals.  They had only been settled by people over the past three centuries. In fact the uninhabited Galapagos were discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. In the millennia between their formation and the arrival of humankind the islands had been a hive of natural selection that had resulted in the evolution of several unique species.

Then it must be remembered that an ecological island is not necessarily an island surrounded by water, but is an area of land, separated by a barrier from the surrounding land, where a natural micro-habitat exists amidst a larger, different ecosystem. Thus, an urban park or garden is an ecological island where the concept of ‘islandness’ applies.  Islandness is an heightened awareness that one is living at a slower pace than those on the other side of a barrier.    David Platt addressed the question of why islandness is a heightened perception felt by outsiders but rarely by islanders themselves,  He concluded that ‘slandness’ is a construct of the mind, a singular way of looking at the world. In particular. he articulated this perspective as perhaps being more important to outsiders.  Outsiders for some reason associate themselves with islands more than do islanders themselves.  Islanders who understand the concept of islandness instinctively may never feel called-upon to express it in words, except for distinguishing between being ‘on island’ or ‘off-island”.  Another way of describing islandness is to define them as thin places.  Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,”, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.  This ancient magic may be said to have began to transform humanity when the first peoples migrated out of Africa.

This blog is about identifying a positive need for off-islanders to have a personal island experience by seeking out a small island upon which to meditate about ecological and cultural beginnings in relation to things of the heart,  One such place out of many is Skomer Island, a 700 acre national nature reserve off the coast of South West Wales.  It can be said to have entered mainstream knowledge about semi wild islands in 1946  In that year it was uninhabited and became home to a continuous succession of amateur naturalists who were members of the island’s first field survey party.   Like the seabirds themselves, they came to Skomer in April, resided there until October, and then withdrew, leaving the island to its wild inhabitants.  The party of explorers aspired to being no more than observers; spectators curious to discover and record the full detail of nature’s way in the isolated compartment of one solitary suboceanic volcanic island.

In earlier earlier times Skomer had been visited in the winter by commercial hunters of rabbits.  In the summer sheep and cattle were pastured and seabird eggs collected. Even earlier, prehistoric people had settled for a while and farmed the island leaving their mark with hut circles, and stone walls..  There was an abortive attempt at intensive farming in the 19th century.  After this, the island gradually became deserted, and its wildlife reverted to a state in which it may have been before the first people ever settled there.  

Like the Galapagos. Skomer has its own experiment in evolution.  Five species of small mammals exist there: the rabbit, a bank-vole, the wood-mouse, the common shrew and the pygmy shrew. Of these, the vole is unique, occurring nowhere else in the world.  This is the Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis) a subspecies of the mainland bank vole.  There are approximately 20,000 voles on the island; probably modified descendents of ordinary bank voles introduced by human settlers. The Skomer vole is a typical vole in appearance, having a short blunt head, small eyes and ears, a tail about half the length of its head and body and a characteristically reddish tinge to the rich fur along its back. It differs from the common mainland bank-vole (Clethrionomys glareolus) in its larger size, its more massive skull, which has certain structural peculiarities, and in its brighter and lighter furry back.  The difference that strikes one immediately is its essential tameness.   

Cultural ecology is an appropriate starting point to explore mainland/island and island/island relations, and islandness is an appropriate conceptual tool in such labours. Owe Ronström has categorised the following 10 features of islandness of which the first 6 apply to Skomer in its present state as a nature reserve and tourist attraction.   

  • Boundedness, that raises and emphasizes borders and thresholds between islands and some mainland or continent. Godfrey Baldacchino notes, “as prototypical ethno-scapes, islands spearhead the study of the production of locality.”
  • Locality is an expression of cultural ecology
  • An agricultural past, and still dependant upon agriculture and…
  • Tourism, a large number of visitors coming to appreciate the lure of the island.. This creates a pressure that ties islanders together, activates a number of border maintaining mechanisms, separates islanders from “people from away”, and pushes some islanders, especially the younger generations, away from the island.
  • Weak economy, that promotes certain cultural practices, such as versatility and reciprocity as survival strategies.
  • Many expressive specialists, artists, intellectuals. While other marginalized places tend to become emptied of such people, islands seem to exert a special attraction on expressive specialists and survivors, which raises the cultural complexity on the island
  • Reciprocity is an important cultural norm; many transactions are done without money.
  • Versatility. Islanders tend to become versatile, polymaths. The available competence is generally broad, but there are often only a few specialists in each area.
  • Overlap is a characteristic feature of island life – islanders meet and get acquainted in many different arenas, which leads to transparency or
  • Surveyability. Since thresholds within the island are generally low, locating and activating resources and competences is fairly easy, especially if you are an islander anchored in the important genealogical family networks in the island.

Therefore, in terms of its unique volcanic origins, wildlife, and the archeological stories of human settlement, Skomer has many conceptualised windows into the study of islandness.  Indeed, it is well placed historically, biologically and geographically to make an essential contribution to grounding the urban and globalised civilisation of our time.

Skomer Island Mind Map

Thin places

Island biogeography

Curriculum of the Heart

Islands of the Mind

The Island: in imagination and experience

Islands and cultural production

Dream Islands

Ways of knowing: or Islands for Thoreauvians

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Skomer: Flagstaff outcrop

“I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.” (Frederick Franck, 1973)

1  Need for transcendental values

2 The Thoreauvians

3  Curricula of the heart

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

5  Epilogue

1  Need for transcendental values

Our present ecological crisis is the greatest man-made disaster this planet has ever faced. The truth is that humankind has created and continues to endorse an all-consuming industrial system which is effectively unstoppable and will run on until it runs out. A central but rarely addressed aspect of this crisis is our forgetfulness of the transcendental view of creation and how this affects our caring relationship to the environment. Transcendentalism describes a very simple idea. People have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that “transcends” or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel.  This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right for humans to thrive.   A transcendentalist is a person who accepts these free thinking ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way of understanding human relationships with other creatures and the material world as a central feature of self education.  

There is a pressing need to articulate a transcendental response to the ecological crisis. This is vital and necessary if we are to treat the world as a living whole.  It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice. The principles of spiritual ecology are simple.  In order to resolve such environmental issues as depletion of species, global warming, and over-consumption of natural resources, humanity must examine and reassess its underlying attitudes and beliefs about the earth.  We have spiritual as well as physical responsibilities toward the planet to share its resources evenly between ourselves and other creatures that we value. Thus, ecological renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness to generate an attitude of responsibility.  We need a form of transcendental ecology in education that blends the language of science with the language of poetry.  The aim should be to transform natural events, objects, and process into vital, significant, and beautiful outcomes that bring together humanity, Earth and the cosmos in a magnificent holistic view. Cultures which foster great achievement need transcendental values, such as truth, beauty and virtue, to be a live presence in the culture; such that great artists and scientific thinkers compete to come closer to the ideal.  Modern transcendentalism is a complex 19th century response to the democratisation of American life, to the rise of science and the technology, of the new industrialism. It was a literary and political movement in the that flourished from the mid-1830s to the late 1850s in eastern Massachusetts.   It redefined the relation of humankind to nature and to each other. What the transcendentalists were opposed to was the rational, scientific approaches to nature which encouraged the objectification and unthinking exploitation of the natural world. The transcendentalists saw nature as something to be enjoyed first and to studied second. They revered nature in a divine sense. It was not subordinate to them, but instead nature was the other part of a symbiotic relationship that takes the bigness of self and dissolves it,.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ in 1836 is often taken to be the moment when transcendentalism became a major cultural movement.  The transcendentalists urged individuals to find their relation to the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of the most well-known transcendentalists, sought this relation in solitude amidst nature and in their writing.

2 The Thoreauvians

Thoreau was the ecological evangelist in the transcendental movement, which promoted meditation on connections between nature and humanity.  Though best known as a literary figure, Henry Thoreau showed a lasting interest in science. He read widely in the scientific literature of his day and published one of the first scholarly discussions on the process of forest succession. In fact, some historians rate Thoreau as one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. At the same time, Thoreau often lamented science’s tendency to kill poetry. Scientific writings coupled with his own careful observations often revealed life to him, but in other ways rendered nature lifeless. Modern-day Thoreauvians are also aware that science has largely become a tool for increased unthinking consumption, rather than for the appreciation and protection of wild nature, particular regarding the vital ecosystem services it provides for humanity.  Thoreau was aware of the cost to nature.  “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”.

Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism was spread by his writings and it first signalled its presence in Wales through two books.  In order of publication these were ‘Dream Island; a record of  the simple life’ published in 1930 by Ronald Lockley and ‘Island of Skomer’, edited by Lockley and his brother in law, John Buxton, published in 1950.

Lockley acknowledged his deep debt to Thoreau in ‘Dream Island, which is an account of how in 1927, together with his wife Doris, Lockley moved onto the tiny Welsh island of Skokholm, off the south west tip of Pembrokeshire.  He says he read Thoreau very thoroughly and was so impressed that his thoughts and actions were for many years influenced by his example of living a domestic life integrated with nature.  Just one mile long, the island had been occupied  intermittently by a mainland tenant, who Lockley replaced as the long term leaseholder.   

These are the opening paragraphs of Dream Island’.

“To dwell alone with birds and flowers in some remote place where they were plentiful and undisturbed was an ambition early cherished in school days: as soon as I began to look at, and watch, and so finally to love nature.

This desire became my daily dream as I grew up.  In turn I envied the Swiss Family Robinson, the Coral Islanders and Robinson Crusoe.  I wished intensely to become a Crusoe.  My day-dreams led me on wondrous expeditions alone in an open boat, and landed me on isolated bird-islands, where I dwell my hermit-life in complete happiness.  I built my little hut, kept my goats and my garden, and spent my days in watching and taming birds”.

The magnetism of islands took hold of Lockley in his boyhood and his first Thoreauvian project as a young man was to make a lake with a small island to attract birds and other wildlife.  It is interesting to compare this sentiment with the following ‘island entry’ in Thoreau’s Journal of 1851.

“One afternoon in the fall Nov 21st 1 saw Fair Pond with its island & meadow between the island & the shore, a strip of perfectly smooth water in the lee of the island & two hawks sailing over it—(and something more I saw which cannot easily be described which made me say to myself that it the landscape could not be improved.) I did not see how it could be improved. Yet I do not know what these things can be; (for) I begin to see such objects only when I leave off understanding them—and afterwards remember that I did not appreciate them before. But I get no further than this. How adapted these forms & colors to our eyes, a meadow & its islands. What are these things? Yet the hawks & the ducks keep so aloof, & nature is so reserved! We are made to love the river & the meadow as the wind (is made) to ripple the water”.

An earlier poetical response to Thoreau had been made in 1888 by William Butler Yeats.   Yeat’s poem, ”The Lake Isle of Innisfree, ” is based directly on Thoreau’s writing. When Yeats was a child, his father read Thoreau’s book ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’ to him.  This book was an account of Thoreau’s withdrawal from society in 1845.  He spent more than two years  building a simple cabin at Walden Pond seeking  a deep and true relation to life.:  

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.

Thoreau studied the natural world as well as the effects it has upon the human’s state of mind. He discovered that simplicity in the physical aspects of life brings depth to our mind, carries our soul to its fullest potential, and causes our imagination to be uplifted in such a way as to change our lives. Like his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau recognized that, in nature, mean egotism vanishes and primitive needs do not arise. In his chapter on economics he reveals the first premise of his philosophy: that economic life has to be reduced to its bare essentials. He saw in the simplicity of life a major condition of the achievement of a natural relation between man and nature:

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots are”.

Thoreau claimed that when man aligned his life with material possession, he wasted his time with unnecessary activities which would impede him from maintaining a deep relation to nature. Like Emerson, therefore, he saw in nature a mystical as well as indispensable significance for the individual’s life. Hence, he propagated a close observation of the natural world and, in particular, of the various interrelations between animals, plants and birds. Thoreau himself filled numerous pages with the most detailed observation of the natural phenomena and processes which were displayed in front of his eyes during his stay in the woods. He illustrates the cyclical course of the seasons, giving each observation his personal note of impression. The most abundant and delightful portrayal is devoted to the spring. Here his rejoicing in the majesty of nature as well as in the harmony of renewal is most evident.

“At length the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snowbanks, and the sun, dispersing the mist, smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off”.

For Thoreau, being wholly involved in nature, perceiving it with all his senses is a state of generous interchange which can only be experienced through intuition. In order to partake in nature this way we must let go of our thoughts because they tend to separate us from nature: “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. […] We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it To establish an intimate relation to nature, the human needs to detach himself from his observant position and surrender himself to the respect due to the very source of his being. In this state of mind the individual is able to achieve a balanced and thoughtful happiness.

Yeats was so attracted to Thoreau’s transcendental ideas that he decided to try to imitate him him by crossing the Irish Lough Gill at night and visiting an uninhabited island known as Innisfree.  He would observe the wildlife and birds.  To him, this was a paradise which never left his imagination.  The tranquil, hypnotic hexameters of the poem recreate the rhythmic pulse of the tide. The simple imagery of the quiet life the speaker longs to lead, as he enumerates each of its qualities, lulls the reader into his idyllic fantasy.  The penultimate line jolts the speaker—and the reader—back into the reality of his drab urban existence: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” The final line—“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”—is a crucial statement for Yeats, not only in this poem but also in his career as a whole. The implication that the truths of the “deep heart’s core” are essential to life is one that would preoccupy Yeats for the rest of his career as a poet; the struggle to remain true to the deep heart’s core may be thought of as Yeats’s primary undertaking as a poet.

Lockley’s book, ‘Island of Skomer’, was the eventual outcome of a meeting of the West Wales Field Society in 1945, immediately after the end of the 2nd World War.  The Society was Lockley’s brain child established to manage all wild and uninhabited islands in West Wales, to protect them and to make use of them for field studies. Now the owner of Skomer had offered to allow the Society to make a field survey and the Society made two momentous decisions, not only to mount and fund such a survey but also to re-establish the Bird Observatory on Skokholm. Thus it was that the two islands became Welsh outposts for Thoreauvians in April 1946, and they have continued to serve this purpose to the present day.

Winifred Bowman an amateur artist who agreed to join the Skomer field party as the volunteer cook/ housekeeper, wrote the following account of her short stay on the island

`…. the lovely things are the easiest to remember. Masses of daffodils and narcissi blew about in the sunlight before the door, and the cliffs were washed with pink and white of thrift and campion, and primroses waited shyly beneath the curling bracken. I remember the liquid cry of the curlew, the lovely blue of the sea, and the fantastic colours of the distant cliffs, the heavenly hour or two in the afternoon when I could creep away from food and people and relax in a sunny corner out of the wind, doing nothing, thinking of nothing. And who could forget the evenings when we all gathered round the table in the lamplight, the enchanting calling of the roll of all the birds seen or likely to be seen on the island, the occasional flare-ups between expert and amateur, the excitement of a new discovery, and after-wards the slow and accurate talk round the driftwood fire, when these monosyllabic, shy bird-watchers spoke of other islands, set in other seas, of far-off countries, and the familiar stretches of the English countryside?

`One could extend the catalogue of beauties indefinitely, the truth of the matter was that Skomer was our University where skill marched with endeavour, and beauty flowered by the way. Not only did we master our own individual unfamiliar duties but we acquired and shared a knowledge of birds, beasts and flowers (of fish too, for I must not forget the marine biologists) and above all of human beings, distinguishing in a new and unique milieu the old characteristics of strength and eccentricity, meanness and generosity, stupidity and humour, the whole wisdom and folly of mankind. `It was a grand three weeks, and all the weeks that followed must have been grand too, except that they perhaps lacked the fine frenzy of our initial endeavour, and, as it turned out, the brilliant sunlight that shone over Skomer in April 1946?

3  Curricula of the heart

Winifred Bowman, in finding non material answers to why she was so attracted to Skomer, was seeing Skomer with her heart, just as Yeats saw, subconsciously, the attractions of the Isle of Innisfree and Thoreau his Walden.  It is no accident that these responses to environment involved contact with islands.

For Thoreau,  ‘An island always pleases my imagination; even the smallest, as a small continent and integral part of the globe’.  

Islands are good for transcendental Thoreauvian thinking because they are ‘small continents’, manageable totalities in themselves.They are ‘integral parts of the globe’ yet cut off with their own individuality in relation to origins and the diverse ways they play variations on the same themes of humankind’s impact.  In these respects, both Skomer and Skokholm are dominated by rocks, rabbits and seabirds and offer contact with wildness in an outdoor classroom.  They lead a self teaching visitor through Thoreau’s extended mystical mind set in an attempt to discover how to live with the guidance and observance of Nature, cherishing Nature and its elements.  Thoreau’s ways of knowing begin with a heartfelt feeling for objects, which may or may not then be subject to scientific investigation.  His scientific endeavours supplement the need to understand his fellow creatures.  He valued acquaintance with plants, animals and their topography, whether or not he had scientific knowledge about them.

He says  

“I…   wanted to know my neighbors, if possible, — to get a little nearer to them. I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions.

The main topographical element on Skokholm is Old Red Sandstone about 400 million years old. It is a fragment of a common mainland geological system.  It makes the island photogenically colourful but not mysterious with respect to its origin.  Skomer, in contrast, is  composed almost entirely of volcanic and related rocks with exposures, arranged in jagged parallel  lines, remnants of the youngest major volcanic episode in the southern part of the Britain. The entire volcanic area stretches east-west for about 43 Km with Skomer forming only part of this major unique geological field.  Once it was magma squeezed out onto the seabed during the early Silurian period (443- 416 million years ago).   A  small number of the lava beds were once pyroclastic in nature, formed by fluidized masses of rock fragments and gases flung out violently at great speed.  In more recent Ice Age times isolated rocks originating in the northern mainland have been dropped onto the surface by glacial flows. Compared with Skokholm, Skomer is a darker place but physically more diverse. Across the island, remains of boulder-built boundaries, neat stone walls and the footings of round houses can be seen showing how the island was extensively farmed by small communities in Iron Age and Romano-British times between 2,000-2,500 years ago. A prominent standing stone and other possible megaliths, suggest far earlier human occupation dating back to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Rabbits have adapted to life on both islands since the Norman conquerors of  Pembrokeshire decided to use them as rabbit farms. Rabbits now dominate the surface appearance of both islands due to their intensive burrowing and dominance of the few botanical species they do not eat.  In this respect, the rabbits are gardeners; digging, scraping and manuring the soil, endlessly recycling botanical nutrients.  

The first recorded use of Skomer for Thoreauvian thinking was in 1890s when the island was visited by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.  To these urban visitors the sights and sounds of the island were as exotic as the Galapagos.  The party gave it the nickname Golgotha because of the large number of rabbit and bird skulls that littered the island. The topics covered in their report of the visit  ranged from the first thoughts about the local vole being a new undescribed species to farm labourers sleeping squalidly three to a bed.  

The first true Thoreauvians to live on Skomer were the ‘Two Rays’ who set up a temporary home in ‘the rabbit catcher’s hut’ sited in the old stack yard of the farm.  Ray Howard Jones was a painter poet and her partner, Ray Moore, a photographer.  True to Thoreau they made their furniture from driftwood, burned peat for fuel and recorded their feelings in heartfelt art works in a complex blending with their surroundings of  land, sea and sky.  A collection of Ray Howard Jones’ poems, entitled ‘Heart of the Rock’ was published in 1993, three years before her death.  She believed Skomer’s rocky outcrops and sea cliffs were a wake-up call to the spirit.  By touching these ancient lava beds one was short circuiting planetary history via an imaginary portal  to the deep well of cosmic energy before life began. This is an example of the geological rhetoric familiar to Thoreau’s time. Rock outcrops were  “relics” of nature’s past “pages” in the archives of the planet, texts that could relate wondrous histories from deep time.  Thoreau often thought about ancient poems and wisdom texts as “fossil truths”.  In this respect, Thoreau was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual thought.  Most readers think of Thoreau’s Oriental themes as incidental, whereas actually they are at the heart of his life and writings.

Year by year Skomer is a repetitive scenic experience; an unchanging rocky treeless habit.  But careful observation reveals subtle microcosmic shifts in the pattern of bare soil, dead grass and plant succession related in very complex ways to the upsurge and decline in rabbit numbers and changes in local weather and climate.  The long chequered history of Skomer is written in the outcropping rocks poking through a thin cover of low commonplace vegetation, home to densely packed burrowing rabbits and seabirds.  This landscape is now being explored by high resolution aerial survey and satellite technology which opens up the whole island as a unified geological and ecological system with a surface expressing millennia of human low input occupations.  

Google satellite image of the west end of Skomer showing parallel outcrops running east to west

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

In 1959 Skomer was declared a national nature reserve.  The first move to develop the island as an educational resource were  made in the 1970s by Prof. Denis Bellamy, head of the zoology department at Cardiff University, then a college of the University of Wales. By arrangement with the Nature Conservancy Council small groups of second year students were allocated personal projects on the island to fill gaps in knowledge about the island’s ecology and its management issues.  The projects were carried out on the island during a two week stay.  Similar courses were arranged on Skokholm.  The Skomer courses were initially based in the ‘Rabbit Catchers Hut’ at the farm.  It was during the first of these courses that the issue of the place of environmental studies in the university’s science degree system were raised.  

There is no doubt that students locked onto the island, driven on a personal self learning journey released for the first time in their educational experience.   From their group discussions the students composed the following Skomer Declaration on Environmental Education”

“Environmental education should be adopted by the university as a cross-curricular subject centred on managing natural resources to ensure equal shares of renewable resources are available for future generations.  This should be attained through wise management to make improvements in the quality of life and assistance to ensure the transfer of conservation know how to the developing world.  The acronym S.K.O.M.E.R has been adopted  to summarise the students’ understanding of Thoreau’s educational  philosophy as ‘sustainability knowledge organised to manage the environment responsibly”.

Environmentalism was in the air and in 1972 the principles of the UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment were published.  Five years later, the categories of environmental education objectives from the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), the outcome of the world’s first intergovernmental conference on environmental education, were adopted as guidelines for the Skomer work.

Awareness—to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.

Knowledge—to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.

Attitudes—to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment, and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.

Skills—to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.

Participation—to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

The students’ Skomer Declaration was the basis for developing the subject called Environmental Studies by the Science Faculty of the University at Cardiff.  The subject was offered as half of a two subject BSc general honours degree,   All departments of the faculty, from archeology  to zoology, committed to the introduction of environmental studies as an interdepartmental subject,   

In the early 1980s it had became the model for the creation of the subject called natural economy launched by the Cambridge University Local Examination Syndicate as part of its international GCSE.  

The Skomer declaration continued to be developed in Cardiff with funds from the educational directorate of the European Union,  It is currently available as a cross curricular framework called cultural ecology developed and promoted by International Conservation On Line.  Hundreds of people register for the cultural ecology blog each week and the home site and its satellites receive one to two million unique hits per year.

Environmental Studies, natural economy and cultural ecology  are cross curricular science based customisable knowledge frameworks that also allow a ‘sense of heart’ to enter ecology.  The latter is the most obvious evidence of a commitment to holistic education.  It primarily implies the importance of a holistic approach to include life governed by the subconscious,  

The subconscious which is let loose on Skomer is that part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings   It fronts a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace and beauty. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning.  ‘Heart’ encompasses feeling, knowing, loving, and is our access to one another. It is also the deep well of our full human meaning to be educated in the practice of self-knowledge. It also presents an understanding of the requirements of participation and the necessity for that possibility to be realised through democratic association. For the transcendentalists a curriculum of  the heart is shorthand for an education that encourages deep personal and societal change.  The medium of change is to be enclosed in a semi wild landscape that encourages self inspired learning which produces a change in personal values from liking things to loving things.

Cultural ecology is an educational framework to build a personal body of knowledge which chimes with UNESCO’s four types of education.  These were set out in a report by the ‘International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century’ chaired by Jacques Delors in 1996. The pillars underline the very breadth and depth of Thoreau’s vision of education within and beyond schooling.  

They are:

  • learning to know,
  • learning to do,
  • learning to live together,
  • and learning to be.  

Although they can be defined separately, the pillars form an integrated whole and should ideally be present in all pedagogical encounters and the curriculum as a unified entity. The Four Pillars are programmatic and can be summed up as follows:

‘Learning to know’ lays the foundations of learning throughout life. This pillar refers to the basic knowledge that we need to be able to understand our environment and to live in dignity. It is also about arousing curiosity, allowing us to experience the pleasures of research and discovery. It faces us with the challenge of combining a sufficiently broad education with the in-depth investigation of selected subjects. Learning to know implies learning how to learn by developing one’s concentration, memory skills and ability to think.

‘Learning to do’ refers to the acquisition of practical skills, but also to an aptitude for teamwork and initiative, and a readiness to take risks. As such, this pillar is about the competence of putting what we have learned into practice so as to act creatively on our environment. A variety of situations, often unforeseeable, is bound to arise. Learning to do enables us to turn our knowledge into effective innovations

‘Learning to live together is the pillar that the UNESCO Commission emphasises more than any other. It refers first of all to developing an understanding of others through dialogue leading to empathy, respect, and appreciation. Yet if we are to understand others, we must first know ourselves. ‘Learning to live together’ is also about recognizing our growing interdependence,  experiencing shared purposes, and about implementing common projects and a joint future. Only then will it be possible to manage the inevitable conflicts in a peaceful way.

‘Learning to be’ is founded on the fundamental principle that education needs to contribute to the all-round development of each individual. This pillar deals with the broadening of care for each aspect of the personality. It deals with giving us the freedom of thought, feeling, and imagination that we need to act more independently, with more insight, more critically, and more responsibly. The end of education is to discover and open the talents which are hidden like a treasure within every person. As a means of personality training, education should be a highly individualized process and at the same time an interactive social experience. By speaking of learning to know rather than of knowing, UNESCO indicates that this is a never-ending process that is both personal and shared. Education is not only about know-what, but also about know-why, know-how and know-what for.

Learners are not called to merely become experts in their field, but also co-workers in knowledge production processes and managers of meaningful, responsible and sustainable development.

These ideas and themes on holistic education may be elaborated through a chronological examination of Thoreau’s works. For example, a study by Clair Hockley in 2013 envisioned a Thoreauvian education presented in the words and the voice Thoreau himself may have used. The picture that she presents;

…. is a school that strives to equip its students for life. Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the realization that each student has a life that only he or she can live. Others may walk alongside for a time but each person must learn to live his or her own life. It is in this sense that each life is in essence a life of solitude. A Thoreauvian school would encourage living that life to the fullest, in the pursuit of one’s own dreams and passions. A Thoreauvian school would endeavour to equip the student for such a life”.

Thoreauvian ways of knowing about the existence and value of knowledge are not to delve deeper into anatomy, but to enjoy a plant or animal in its proper place. Not to dissect their flowers, but to go to see when they flower, allowing them to show themselves at their best.  Here,  is revealed an ambiguity in the word ‘to know.’ It can mean personal acquaintance with something or someone. Or it can mean possessing a correct picture of the structure and true information of the history of a physical thing. This more rigorous knowledge can be pursued ever more deeply to know more and more about less and less.  Yet anyone can.engage in a meeting of things in their careful observations of the surroundings.  Thoreau asserts there are two ways of knowing.  There is the existence and value of particular detailed knowledge; and the existence and value of acquaintance, irrespective of knowledge.  This distinction is exemplified by the following extract from ‘Island of Skomer’ in which the reader makes acquaintance with its ‘cliff gardens’

The rock-walls were covered with lichens, especially Usnea sp. whose greenish-grey beard-like strands quite disguise the true colour of the basalt. These delightful cliff-gardens of Skomer were the frequent resort of observers who sought to escape for a while from the blustering south-westerly gales; the ornithologist who wandered there in the spring found himself looking up at the grey rock face where gull, raven, chough, peregrine falcon and fulmar petrel patrolled; and below him the sheer cliffs were filled with the cries and flighting of nesting kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. The spongy turf itself contained the burrows of puffin and shearwater, although the entrances to these underground nests were partly or wholly concealed by the vigorous growth of the plant community. These ledges, too, had been discovered by the cattle which in 1946 were pastured on Skomer; and their owner had great difficulty in preventing the descent of the beasts to this shelter and rich grazing. He had experienced several losses due to the heavy animals slipping or jostling each other when turning on the unfenced edges of the precipice. The effect of the trampling and dunging by the cattle was plain in the virile growth of the vegetation; the nitrogen content had been increased in a soil already well supplied with seabird guano, and with the moisture and humus provided by layers of decaying vegetation laid down each winter. Another cliff plant association is to be found between the extremes.

5  Epilogue

What has become of the Bellamy vision of Skomer as a place for operating a residential Thoreauvian curriculum.  The last groups of Cardiff students passed through the islands over 30 years ago and Skomer is now mass marketed as part of the local tourist industry. There is a regular boat service for up to 250 visitors per day and accommodation for an assortment of full time staff,  self-catering visitors,  weekly volunteers and research workers.  Once the last day visitor has left the island you could be socialising with more than twenty people who remain.  Inevitably, Skomer has become a money earning institution and the mainland education system is still assiduously imparting detailed knowledge from within out of date subject silos.

Five decades ago the Thoreauvian population of Skomer was seldom more than ten.  The boat service was unreliable and communication with the mainland was by a radio telephone, but only in an emergency!  You went to Skomer for the long run, anticipating being marooned for days beyond the time of your booking.

There is a growing mood of pessimism regarding the failure of environmental education to grip the syllabus to significantly change human behaviour towards one-planet living. Yet, the future of humankind and other life forms is grim. The ultimate Thoreauvian environment is the Galapagos archipelago as Darwin first saw it. At the latest count it has lost twelve of its thirteen coral reefs to climate change.  The endemic giant ‘daisy tree’ is on the verge of extinction.  Its habitat, which is some of the most fertile soils across the Islands, has been turned into agricultural land to meet the needs of a population that has grown three times faster than on the Ecuadorian mainland..  

A vigorous  promoter of this attitude of disenchantment with the lack of applications of environmental education to live sustainably is Paul Kingsnorth.  Faced with lack of progress towards sustainable lifestyles we kick the issue into the long grass.   

We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of the Facts and if we enlighten them they will Act.  We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology has yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it.  Or we might choose believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to the People by the Bad Men in Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth”.

The truth is that Thoreauvians have to accept that self-sufficiency comes packaged with literary romance, which supports sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people feel is their right.  

We can leave the last words to Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor.  He warns against forgetting that we “share the cause”  of nature by being overly preoccupied with the institutions we have made,  Of this obsession, Emerson writes he is “ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions”. Nonetheless, Emerson recognizes that we must live in the world that we have created, and he advises that we “keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude,” which is found in nature, even while “in the midst of the crowd”.  We, continue to dream that wind farms, tidal turbines and other renewable technologies will allow them/us to carry on with two percent economic growth as usual, for ever

Skomer: Outcrop portals into the subconscious

6  Internet references

Towards a transcendental ecology

Learning patterns and landscapes

Visions of the American Transcendentalists

Curricula of the heart



Science and system

Thoreau and knowing

Transcendental thinking

Cultural ecology

Skomer: mindmap

Skomer: campfire mediation

Placemaking: the human ecological niche

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

“How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created to dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects; and that a petrel should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated”.

Charles Darwin (1859), ‘On the Origin of Species’


1  The ecological niche

Ecology as a body of knowledge had no firm beginnings. It evolved from the natural history of the ancient Greeks to describe system thinking about the interrelationships between organisms and between organisms and their nonliving environment. The word ecology was coined by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel to define “the relation of the animal both to its organic as well as its inorganic environment.”   In 1870 Haeckel wrote, “Ecology is the scientific study of all those complex interactions referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence”.  The word ecology comes from the Greek  meaning “household,” “home,” or “place to live.”

Serious systems thinking about ecology began In the mid-1900s when two groups of botanists, one in Europe and the other in the United States, studied plant communities from two different points of view. The European botanists concerned themselves with the study of the composition, structure, and patterned  distribution of plant communities. The American botanists studied the development of plant communities, a process in time described as succession, which emphasised the interrelation of both plant and animal communities as a living process.  From 1905, Frederick Edward Clements merged these two streams of research to promote an holistic view of communities as organisms and of the plant formations as superorganisms, progressing towards a climax steady state.

At the time of these international debates about communities and their similarities to organisms, the British biologist, Arthur George Tansley, recognised the need for a non-community-based descriptor of nature. While agreeing that  ‘mature well-integrated plant communities … had enough of the characters of organisms to be considered as quasi-organisms’, he wished to introduce a broad term to comprehend not only the organisms but also the complex interactions between living and physical factors.  In this connection, Tansley had asked Arthur Clapham (then a young man in the Department of Botany at Oxford) if he could think of a suitable word to encompass the dynamic  physical and biological components of environment as a unit.  Clapham came up with the term ‘ecosystem’, which Tansley first used in 1935 .

Around this time the concept of ‘niche’ emerged to describe the place or function of a given organism in nature.  A niche refers to the way in which an organism fits into an ecosystem. Through the process of natural selection a niche is the evolutionary result of the physical structure of a species and the physiological and behavioural adaptations to its surroundings. A habitat is the actual location in the environment where an organism lives and consists of all the physical and biological resources available to a species. The collection of all the habitat areas of a species constitutes its geographic range.

Among the first to use the niche concept was Joseph Grinnell in 1917. He viewed the niche as the functional role and position of an organism in its community. Grinnell considered the niche essentially a behavioural unit, although he also emphasised it as the ultimate distributional unit of all life forms, thereby including spatial features of the physical environment.   Charles Elton in 1927, defined an animal’s niche as “its place in the biotic environment, its relations to food and enemies” and as “the status of an organism in its community.”  Further, he said that “the niche of an animal can be defined to a large extent by its size and its feeding behaviour,  Thus, ecology deals with the organism as a population and as individuals with respect to all their interactions with environment. In particular it includes the ways in which individuals modify their surroundings to produce a living space that is safe and productive,  The Eltonian niche emphasises the functional attributes of animals and their corresponding position in food chains.

The concept of the ecological  niche now pervades all of ecology.  Were it not for the fact that the ecological niche has been used in so many different ways, ecology might be defined as the study of niches. For example, the Ouse Washes, a large area of unimproved winter wetland in the UK,  holds important niches for ducks, coots and moorhens.  There is clear niche partition of this habitat between species.   In an area of about 500 ha, dabbling ducks nest on higher drier ground, whilst coot nests are surrounded by water: moorhen nests were intermediate in their positions. Gadwall, tufted duck and pochard nest within 10 m of water whilst other duck species nested between 10-60m from water. The preferred duck nest sites are in tussocky grasses, especially of Deschampsia caespitosa, whilst coot prefer the non-tussocky Glyceria maxima. The height of vegetation at the nest is greater than around the nest for all species. Mallard and gadwall and tufted duck prefer to nest in unused or lightly grazed fields. whilst shoveler and pintail preferr the more heavily grazed fields (> 90 cow days/acre). Coot and moorhen show no such preferences. Ditches and permanent pools hold most of the waterfowl broods, whilst the temporary pools hold most of the adults not involved in rearing young. Where different species are found together the habitat is partitioned through differences in feeding behaviour.  In this connection, a fundamental niche can be defined as the range of environmental conditions in which each of the species survives. The realized niche can be termed as the range of environmental conditions in which a species is really found.   For example on the rocky coast of Scotland the fundamental niche of the barnacle Chthamalus includes both shallow and deeper zones, but its realised niche is much narrower because Chthamalus is outcompeted by Semibalanus in the upper part of its fundamental niche (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Fundamental and realised niches of barnacles on a rocky shore


2 Human Ecological Niche

The ecological niche has been defined in terms of the distribution of species, the functions they perform and the resources they consume.   Over the years this niche concept has been used by anthropologists  in a number of ways as a specialised part of human society, as being synonymous with culture, and as a segment of the habitat. Odum, thinking in a broad biological context, compared the niche to the profession or way of life of the organism while noting that the habitat is equivalent to its ‘address’. The way of life is more precisely specified by Hutchinson as the total requirements of survival for the organism.  Consequently, the human niche comprises all those conditions necessary for humanity to exist. In a local context it can be a living space, with a distinctive way of life, such as a self contained tribal settlement, a fishing village or a coal mining community with marketing links to the outside world.   It was Donald Hardesty in 1972 who took up this “multi-dimensional” concept and applied it to discussions of the human ecological niche, believing it renders the niche concept of greater value to studies of all human activities, emphasising that we are part of nature in everything we do to occupy our time.

Adler says that to define the main categories under which the activities that fill most of our life’s time can be classified, it is necessary to answer four questions, as follows:

First, is the activity compulsory or optional? Here we must consider two subordinate questions. If compulsory, is its necessity absolute (unconditional) or relative (conditional)? If optional, is it also morally obligatory for the purpose of leading a good life or living well, even though it is not biologically necessary for the preservation of life and health, and not economically necessary for earning a livelihood — the means of subsistence? If optional and not morally obligatory, is it nevertheless morally permissible because it does not frustrate our efforts to lead a decent human life?

Second, what purpose does the activity serve? Why do we engage in it? What goods or values do we achieve by doing it, either for ourselves or for the society in which we live?

Third, how is the result we achieve by the activity related to the activity by which we achieve the result, and also how is it related to the agent performing the activity? On the one hand, the result — the good or value aimed at by the activity — may be extrinsic to the activity. It may be a consequence of the activity, one that follows from it and lies beyond it. On the other hand, it may be inherent in or intrinsic to the activity itself. When the activity has no consequences as part of its purpose or aim, it is strictly nonutilitarian. When it is utilitarian, it may, on the one hand, result in some perfection or improvement of the agent performing the activity; on the other hand, it may improve something other than the performing agent. The result may also be only a good or value for the individual performing the activity, or it may also be a good or value for the society in which the performing agent lives.

Fourth, what sort of activity is it? Is the activity physical, mental, or both in different measures: more or less physical, more or less mental?

These activities, Jerry Coyne explains, are what Pinker sees as the “cognitive niche” (a term invented by John Tooby and Irv DeVore) as a description of the human lifestyle where both thought and social cooperation blend to manipulate the environment in which we move and reproduce.  This involves, for example, using tools, extracting poisons from plants,  and all the stratagems of cooperative hunting: planning, communicating, making traps, and so forth.  Pinker sees several “preadaptations” that facilitated our entry into the cognitive niche.  By “preadaptation,” he means features that evolved for one purpose but  could subsequently be co opted for a different one.  One such feature is our prehensile hands, perhaps themselves a byproduct of bipedality. Another is our diet, which includes meat: as Pinker notes, meat is “not only a concentrated source of nutrients for a hungry brain but may have been selected in turn for greater intelligence because it requires more cleverness to outwit an animal than to outwit fruits or leaves.” A third preadaptation is for group living.

A group is a collection of individuals who have relations to one another that make them interdependent to a significant degree.  As so defined, the term group refers to a class of social entities having in common the property of interdependence among their constituent members.  The hominin niche became increasingly structured for group living in a mutually interdependent world, where individual relationships shape socially shared meanings, while these simultaneously inform the individuals’ understandings of their actions. This culture was defined as the ecology of the mind by anthropologist Gregory Bateson.  For example, it began with hunter gathering and the sophisticated coordination of collective meat procurement, a willingness to provide others with resources, the occasional, but critical reliance on resources produced by others, and procedures for the fair sharing of meat and collective duties. The availability of lethal weapons in early hominin society helped to stabilize this system because it undermined the tendencies of dominants to exploit others in society. Thus two successful sociopolitical structures for group living in a hominin cognitive niche arose to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of social cooperation.. The first was the reverse dominance hierarchy, which replaced social dominance based on physical power with a political system in which success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and motivate others. The second was cooperative breeding and hunting, which provided a strong psychological predisposition towards prosociality and favoured internalized norms of fairness. This survival system seems to have persisted as a major feature of the human ecological niche until cultural changes in the Holocene fostered material wealth accumulation.  Through wealth it became once again possible to sustain a social dominance hierarchy based on coercion. This broad view of cultural ecology has important implications for political theory and social policy, for it suggests that human groups are predisposed to seek dominance when this is not excessively costly, but also to form coalitions to depose pretenders to power. Moreover, humans are much more capable of forming powerful and sustainable coalitions than other primates, due to enhanced cooperative psychological propensities.  Where such groups are organised around the exploitation of a local natural resource the community is called an ecumene.

Ecumene is derived from the Greek root oixos meaning inhabited and nenon meaning space.  It generally refers to land where people have made their permanent home, and to all work areas that are considered occupied and used for agricultural or any other economic purpose. Thus, there can be various types of ecumenes, each having its own unique characteristics (fishing ecumene, agricultural ecumene, industrial ecumene, etc.).

Staithes, on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, was an ecumene of some standing that was based on inshore fishing.  It landed sufficient cod, mackerel and haddock for the North Eastern railway to run three or four special fish trains a week. Lining was one of the methods by which the fish were caught. The lines of hooks were baited with mussels, or sometimes limpets (Fig 2).   It was the role of women to bait the hooks and carry them down to their menfolk on the beach  The women wore homemade traditional utilitarian bonnets, which were padded at the top to help carry the coiled lines in head baskets.  They were also flared at the sides to stop the coils of hooks and lines becoming entangled in their hair. Each bonnet required a yard of material, and was double-plaited at the front and tied at the back with a bow. The bonnets were incorporated as social signals into village life.  They were white in colour but when a woman was widowed the colour of the material was changed to black, which was worn for a considerable time after the bereavement. This bonnet, in turn, was then exchanged for one of a mauve coloured material.  Although bonnets were characteristic of many fishing villages along the East Coast, those produced by Staithes families were the most significant markers of the village ecumene.

Fig 2  Fisherwomen of the Staithes ecumene baiting lines for their menfolk (staged for the camera, date unknown)

Every ecumene is a band with strong bonds to its territory defined by characteristic social hardware and software, that enables its people to occupy a distinctive spatially disjunct niche with persistence of social practices favouring sustainable resource use.   Social hardware refers to the forces and relations of production, namely the technological infrastructure and the property systems, e.g.commons, family communal corporate or state owned.  Social software refers to the belief system eg. religion, tradition or science which legitimises and validates human interactions with nature via its political and natural economy.

In an anthropological context political economy has come to mean the organisation of people for production. It runs alongside natural economy which is defined as the organisation of resources for production. These economies devoted to managing the use of resources are the two sides of the coin of world development and together they provide an educational framework for organising cultural ecology as a distinct body of knowledge.

This implies that many forms of sociopolitical organisation for group living, from tribes to nations, are compatible with the particular human amalgam of hierarchical and anti-hierarchical predispositions. In particular, there is no inevitable triumph of liberal democratic over despotic political hierarchies. An open society will always be threatened by the forces of despotism, and a technology could easily arise that irremediably places democracy on the defensive. The future of politics in our species, in the absence of concerted emancipatory collective action, could well be something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Humans appear constitutionally indisposed to accept a social dominance hierarchy based on coercion unless the coercive mechanism and its associated social processes can be culturally legitimated. It is somewhat encouraging that such legitimation is difficult except in a few well-known ways, based on patriarchy, popular religion, or liberal democracy.  Thus, every place is a blend of cultural, spiritual, political, social, and emotional notions.

In her book ‘Whose India?’ Teresa Hubel introduces a notion that place is a property of the imagination .  She presented the idea that whoever speaks to and for India’s people, and whoever imagines India’s past or destiny with the hope of determining its future, can be said to be a part owner of the notion.  Going a step further along this line of thinking, Hubel’s notion is actually multi-layered.  It is applicable globally and extends down to the level of the smallest place where people gather.  Place belongs to whichever individuals or groups are able to constitute its formation in discourse.  Kipling and Rushdie are two ethnically distinct individuals who both stake their legitimate claim to the ownership of India by the very act of writing about it. A group or individual who simulates a virtual presence in a place in the real world thereby establishes ownership of that place: thereby place comes to have a personalised psychological existence and a sector within a person’s ecological niche.

Ecumenes are the outcome of managing specialised behaviours governing settlement to exploit a  local natural resource.  Regarding the bulk of the European  population, at the start of the eighteenth century it lived off the land, but one-third of this rural population gained their living by means other than farming.  Much of the non-agricultural workforce comprised carpenters and blacksmiths, carters and shopkeepers, tailors and shoemakers. All were essential to the rural economy.  The niches of these craftsmen-retailers can be assessed through their listings  in numerous trade directories that were published at this time.  Such analysis highlights the limited capitalisation of their craft activities and their close involvement with agricultural pursuits, including the ownership of livestock and husbandry ware. It also reveals the close social ties which they enjoyed with their rural communities.  Friends and family were primarily rural, as were their customer and credit networks.  The tribal history of the areas occupied by villages and market towns, defined by land divisions such as parishes and hundreds, are evidence of the ancient settlements of families which ensured a fair allocation of ecosystem services within a village niche.


3  Ecosystem services and the spatial niche

 The human ecological niche can be thought of as a focus for group living sustained by the management of ecosystem services for rural and urban settlement: a management system which now connects people to all parts of the globe.  In this context, four categories of ecosystem services are provided by nature.  Territory is conceptualised as that which links people and their environment. It is a unique, socially and materially constructed, or produced ‘ecological niche’ and at the same time the ‘social space’ of a group of people, defined by their spatial identity. Territory is a structure that is embodied in reality and that ‘lives’ in people’s minds as well as in their practices. It has an underlying infrastructure of common rules or codes and of network of material and informational flows.  Material flows are now defined as services produced by nature; the so-called ecosystem services.

When people are asked to identify a service provided by nature, most think of food.  Fruits, vegetables, trees, fish and livestock are available to us as direct products of ecosystems.  A provisioning service is any type of benefit to people that can be extracted from nature.

Along with food, other types of provisioning services include:  

  • Drinking water
  • Timber
  • Wood fuel, natural gas and oils
  • Plants that can be made into clothes and other materials
  • Medicinal benefits

Ecosystems provide many of the basic services that make life possible for people.  Plants clean air and filter water, bacteria decompose wastes, bees pollinate flowers and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion.  All these processes work together to make ecosystems clean, sustainable, functional and resilient to change.  A regulating service is the benefit provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena.

Regulating services include:

  • Pollination
  • Decomposition
  • Water purification
  • Erosion and flood control
  • Carbon storage and climate regulation

As we interact and alter nature, the natural world has in turn altered us.  It  has guided our cultural, intellectual and social development by being a constant force present in our lives. The importance of ecosystems to the human mind can be traced back to the beginning of mankind with ancient civilizations drawing pictures of animals, plants and weather patterns on cave walls.

A cultural service is a non-material benefit that contributes to the development and cultural advancement of people including,

  • How ecosystems play a role in local, national and global cultures
  • The building of knowledge and the spreading of ideas
  • Creativity born from interactions with nature (music, art, architecture)
  • Recreation

The natural world provides so many services that sometimes we overlook the most fundamental.  Ecosystems themselves could not be sustained without the consistency of underlying natural processes, such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, the creation of soils and the water cycle.  These processes allow the Earth to sustain basic life forms, let alone whole ecosystems and people.  Without supporting services, provisional, regulating and cultural services would not exist..   

In their book on the history of the cultural ecology of India, ‘The Fissured Land’, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha point out that we can distil four distinct modes of resource use:

  • gathering (including shifting cultivation);
  • nomadic pastoralism;
  • settled cultivation;
  • And industry.

The distinctive characteristics of each mode across different axes include:

  • aspects of technology, such as sources of energy, materials used, and the knowledge base relating to resource use
  • aspects of economy, such as the spatial scale of resource flows and the modes of resource acquisition
  • aspects of social organization, such as the size of social group, the division of labour, and mechanisms of control over access to resources
  • aspects of ideology, including broad perceptions of the man-nature relationship, as well as specific practices promoting resource conservation or destruction
  • the nature of the ecological impact itself


4  Cultural ecology flow models

The origins of the ideas in ‘This Fissured Land’ is in the 1990s thoughts of Gadgil and Thapar who defined the history of cultural ecology with reference to the flows of resources within four models of Indian society..

In productive stable environments, hunter gatherers and shifting cultivators maintain well defined territories.  Cycles of materials in such environments are largely closed within their spatial scales of territories with flows of materials across territorial boundaries being much less significant. (Fig 3)

Fig 3  Material flows in territories maintained by hunter-gatherers.

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

Settled agriculture makes possible generation of surplus grain and livestock production which can support concentration of non agricultural populations in towns and cities.  This material export from cultivated lands has to be made good by flows from surrounding non cultivated lands.  Material cycles thus become much more open in comparison with the hunter gatherer shifting cultivator stage.  Settlements adjacent to cultivated land represent villages, the larger habitation in the centre, towns. (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Flows of materials in an agrarian society

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

When settled agricultural populations are newly colonising river valley plains they would tend to use the cultivable lands exhaustively without making good the losses induced by outflows of materials.  As cultivated lands lose fertility people would move on to settle new areas.  Settlements adjacent to cultivated land represent villages, the larger habitation in the centre, towns (Fig 3).

Modern societies tap not only surpluses of agricultural production but also a great deal of the produce of non cultivated lands to meet the requirements of the urban industrial sector  The material cycles thus become totally open with large outflows from rural hinterlands.  These are partially compensated for by the  organisation of flows of materials such as fertilisers from the urban industrial sector to the cultivated lands.  The large central human habitation represents an Indian city such as Bombay.   The habitation in the upper right hand corner represents the industrialised countries.  (Fig 5).

.Fig 5  Flows of material and people accompanying agricultural colonisation

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.

A modern society taps not only surpluses of agricultural production  but also a great deal of the products of non cultivated lands to meet the requirements of the urban-industrial sector.  The material cycles thus become totally open with large outflows from rural hinterlands.  These are partially compensated for by the organisation of flows of materials such as fertilisers from the urban-industrial sector to the cultivated lands.  The large central human habitation represents an Indian city such as Mumbai: the habitation in the upper right hand corner  represents the industrial countries (Fig 6).

Fig 6   Material flow characterising modern Indian society

The thickness of an arrow indicates the intensity of flow.


4  Internet references

This Fissured Land

Human Ecology in India

Integrating Humans into Ecology

Ecosystem services in urban areas

Cultural ecology

Cultural ecology and niche

Visualising the human ecological niche

Human cognative niche

The Evolutionary Roots of Human Socio political Systems

Uniqueness of human cognition

Pinker 1, the human cognitive niche

Pinker 2

Whose India

The Human Ecological NIche

The Human Niche: an Overview

The Ecosystem Concept Viewed Historically

Hardisty: the Human Ecological Niche

Piggots 1844 Directory Brynmawr

Waterfowl at the Ouse Washes

The Ecological Nihe

Niche Habitat Ecotyype

Blything: A Tribal Territory
Crafsmen-retailers in 17th Century Britain

Thinking with islands

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Quite remarkable things happen when itinerant people set foot on small islands.   Small is beautiful but small is also vulnerable so resilience and adaptability have to be the order of the day,

1  Skomer: a timeline

Skomer is a small cliff girt, treeless, island situated about a mile off the coast of South West Wales.   In terms of its function as a human natural resource its history goes back to the migrations of the first  prehistoric farmers. From this time to the present there has been a varying human presence in a long story in many episodes lasting thousands of years or just a few hours.  Evidence for long term social dynamics rests with the development of field boundaries, where denuded plough lynchets and remains of stone walled fields show clear phasing among overlapping farming systems, all indicative of a complex cultural past.

Fig 1 Shearwater and Skomer

Ray Howard Jones, 1954

Present day visitors are taken on a tour of the roofless round houses and their associated field systems which have been dated to the Iron Age. The evidence comes from excavations at a prehistoric mound of burnt and fire-cracked stones once used to boil water for cooking.  This has produced calibrated radiocarbon dates of between 751-408 BC,  A cattle tooth deposited in the cooking mound was dated to around 85 BC.

Speculations about an even earlier culture have focused on a barrow associated with a considerable number of cairns. There is also evidence for possible megalithic structures.  This would date the first human settlement to the of Neolithic or early Bronze Age. It is claimed that among these remains are at least three standing stone pairs which raises the possibility that they represent a small ritual site.  This idea chimes with the latest ideas of the migration of Neolithic henge builders who spread from Orkney to Salisbury Plain, taking a route south along the western coastline of Britain.  The bluestones, which mark an early conceptual stage of Stonehenge, were quarried a relatively short distance from Skomer and this positions the island within the epicentre of a ‘standing stone’ culture which transferred key cultural elements from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain.

The first documents on Skomer appear in the mid 14th century when the island was established as a large rabbit warren.  A set of accounts recording this operation was compiled by the Norman administration of Haverford West, where the island was an extension of the castle’s community of St Martins.

It seems that the island was uninhabited during the medieval period except for the seasonal visits of warreners and cattle farmers.

The ruined farmhouse, and surrounding large rectangular fields that now dominate the centre of the island were erected in the 1840s by the mainland owner as an investment for the rental market.  The returns from agriculture were probably marginal and over the years the island came to be valued more for its exceptional wildlife.  This phase culminated in Skomer being declared a national nature reserve in 1959.  It is now staffed by a manager and volunteers of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Old farm buildings have been converted as visitor accommodation and there is a daily boat service most of the year.  There is a house for the manager to which is attached a small laboratory with accommodation for field workers.  However, my first visit to Skomer predated these comforts.   The boat was unpredictable, boarding was either direct from the beach or a convenient rock face and the accommodation was primitive.

2 Coming to Islands

My first view of Skomer was in the autumn of 1969, a decade after it had been declared a national nature reserve.   Looking to the west from the mainland across a misty, rainy, Jack Sound from the shelter of the coastguard hut at the top of the Deer Park, I was fascinated by a group of several hundred diving gannets, a reinforcement of the feeling of being immersed  in a powerful local wildness.   Looking to the south west I could see the island of Skokholm, a small smudge on the grey horizon.  Skomer’s  nearness is deceptive, although only just over a mile as the crow flies from Martin’s Haven, it could take two men rowing up to three quarters of an hour to reach Welsh Way, which was the southern point of access until North Haven was made accessible by the Victorians and their dynamite.  This day, on a rare borderline between humankind and nature, began a mindful intellectual link with Skomer, which has lasted to the present day.

Islands occupy a significant space in the human mind because they are good places with with which to think.   They are more than scenic locations.  Their natural boundaries help shape and contain narratives. In my case they are places where poetry and contemplation happen, and I was in search of somewhere to link these powerful social expressions of human wellbeing by making connections between ecology and culture.  Up to that time my scientific career had been based on reductive concepts that came from the biochemical laboratory.  I was in search of the bigger outdoor picture of evolution.  This shift in outlook began during the mid 1960s in Sheffield, where I was Reader in Endocrinology and Metabolism. The change in mindset emerged during the co-supervision of a PhD project into how freshwater shrimps could survive in the tidal estuary of the River Esk at Whitby.  My new scientific outlook came into a much sharper focus when I was offered a place on an international team studying the physiological survival strategies of animals living at the boundary between the River Amazon and its largest tributary the River Negro.  Our base was the spot where, a century before, a pair of British naturalists and explorers, Henry Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, had located their expedition.  When Bates arrived home in 1859 after a full eleven years, he had sent back 14,712 species, mostly insects, of which 8,000 were new to science.  From these findings Bates gave the first scientific account of mimicry in animals. The scientific continuity embedded in this small spot on planet Earth was sometimes overwhelming.  

Bates and Wallace had begun to explore the Rio Negro or “Black River,” and noticed that the water seemed darkly stained, like tea or coffee. Similar, smaller rivers can be found across the northern Amazon basin. Such rivers are usually deep, slow-moving, and wind through peaty forests or swamps. Where the blackwater of the Rio Negro meets the silt-laden, “whitewater” of the western Amazon Basin, the transition is sharp and visible from space.  Our research soon revealed this was an amazing juxtaposition of two entirely different outcomes of evolution expressed in food chains and survival mechanisms  This distinct river ecologies also determined diverse cultures of the rivers’ native settlements, which set seeds of cultural ecology in my mind.

The new mindset that was emerging from contact with the diverse tropical rainforest was a response to the fact that educationalists generally do not face “nature” as a whole as an objective and invariant reality, but only in its parts. The reality I had been taught to perceive always implied an isolated subjective and variable component.  In truth, the operational reality of the  living world can only be systematically and gradually perceived by enlarging its systems and differentiating their elements and relationships. Systems thinking with mind maps is therefore a necessary tool for human progress on an overcrowded planet.  It implies both analytical and synthetical processes and thus is sometimes called a “holistic approach” to nature.   Education is not something to keep in closed conceptual boxes, even when the box is classroom-shaped. The habit of learning, an urge to find out more, is developed when we feel inspired. The world outside the lecture room is richly inspiring, constantly re-energising what takes place within. It is the source of all our learning: about our history, about our culture, about our place in the natural world and our relationships with each other. This two-way flow can be embedded in every child’s education, entirely at ease within any age group and any teacher’s ethos.  Sadly an out of date European education system devised to establish and exploit empires gets in the way.

Sheltering from the weather on the edge of the world, watching the primeval interaction of predator and prey, I needed poetical inspiration to express the wild reality in front of me, which could describe and transmits ecstasy while retaining a practical awareness of the world as a system that goes on relentlessly driven by interlocking food chains.  It was not until 1992, the year of the world summit to launch a strategy to save the planet, that the American poet Mary Oliver captured my mood of 23 years ago, when I vowed to bring students to this place where they could determine for themselves their place in nature.  

I am watching the white gannets

blaze down into the water

with the power of blunt spears

and a stunning accuracy–

even though the sea is riled and boiling

and gray with fog

and the fish

are nowhere to be seen,

they fall, they explode into the water

like white gloves,

then they vanish,

then they climb out again,

from the cliff of the wave,

like white flowers–

and still I think

that nothing in this world moves

but as a positive power–

even the fish, finning down into the current

or collapsing

in the red purse of the beak,

are only interrupted from their own pursuit

of whatever it is

that fills their bellies–

and I say:

life is real,

and pain is real,

but death is an imposter,

and if I could be what once I was,

like the wolf or the bear

standing on the cold shore,

I would still see it–

how the fish simply escape, this time,

or how they slide down into a black fire

for a moment,

then rise from the water inseparable

from the gannets’ wings.

The depiction of Skomer in its wildness was the aim of the Welsh painter, Rosemary Howard Jones.  Rosemary, known as “Ray”, grew up near Cardiff and on a visit to Pembrokeshire as a child fell in love with the coastline that was to hold and sustain her throughout her life. In the 1950s she spend long periods on Skomer living in the ‘Rabbit Catcher’s Hut’, with her long-term partner, photographer Ray Moore.  The  hut had basic furniture the pair had made from driftwood.  I remember discussions with her about the merits of the interwar poets in her silver caravan permanently parked just within the gate to the Deer Park when she was regarded a rather eccentric recluse, Another image is of her sitting gross legged in the prow of the boat going to Skokholm, drenched with spray, anorak turned up, sketching the waves breaking around her (Figs 1 & 2)

Fig 2  Sunset on Skomer

Ray Howard Jones (circa 1950s)

3  Skokholm: a scientific outpost

It was in fact the island of Skokholm, not Skomer, that had first attracted me to Pembrokeshire, with the objective of organising a research project on its colony of house mice.  Mice live freely all over Skokholm in a population that had then been in existence for more than 70 years.   The ecological genetics of these animals had been studied intensively from 1960 to 1969 by the geneticist Sam Berry, who had set up a small field laboratory on the island for this purpose.  At that time I was co-director of the Nuffield Gerontology Laboratory at Hull University  and had just been appointed head of the department of zoology in the University of Wales at Cardiff.  The aim of my research on Skokholm was to investigate to what extent studies on laboratory animals could be extended to animals in the wild. Put simply the question is, do mice in the wild age in the same way as mice bred in the laboratory?

The other important historical feature of Skokholm that had brought me to this part of South Wales, was the significant position of the island in the the development of the science of ecology. The key local figure was Ronald Lockley, a farmer and naturalist, who took a lease on the island and began from 1928  to study migratory birds using the ‘new’ technique of ‘ringing’.  He established the first British bird observatory on Skokholm in 1933,  One of its early pieces of research was Lockley’s work in 1936-7 with David Lack on the homing behaviour of the Manx Shearwater.  Their ringing experiments showed that this bird, which nests in large numbers on Skokholm, can successfully return to the island from great distances.  This involved taking birds to Venice!. The farthest distance of Skokholm from Venice, is about 930 miles direct, while if this bird travelled the whole way back by sea it must have covered at least 3,700 miles.

The other important biological principle that arose out of discussions among the many ornithologists who visited the bird observatory in its early days, led to David Lack’s ruminations on the fact that islands demonstrate that, the smaller and more remote the island, the more impoverished the bird fauna compared with the mainland.  This is possibly the most general pattern found in ecology, and many explanations have been proposed.  The relationship between island area and number of species is now well known: larger islands contain more species than smaller islands.  Furthermore, “Islands” can be used to refer not only to pieces of land surrounded by water, but to habitat islands as well, such as lakes, forest fragments, etc.

Regarding my work on the ageing of Skokholm’s wild mice, which was carried out in the early 1970s, individuals were allotted to eight age-classes on the basis of tooth wear, such that the oldest group were over a year old and had survived the previous winter, while the others had all been born in the current breeding season.  This gave a maximum life span of a year.  In the laboratory, these mice lived, as do laboratory mice, for a maximum of around  three years.

Molecular markers showed that natural selection was operating on the wild Skokholm mice, so that the age groups were not genetically homogeneous. Animals living a few metres apart were different genotypes.  A number of characters were shown to be age-correlated, and their importance varied in mice from different habitats; no one trait could adequately describe the observed changes with age.  The conclusion is that ageing studies carried out on ‘standardized’ laboratory animals in a necessarily over-simplified experimental environment may give results misleading to gerontologists.  Human ageing does not occur in the wild because individuals die of disease or predation before they can experience it.

Rabbits are the other small mammal living wild on Skokholm, and Lockley, in his capacity of  farmer, engaged with them as a pest that was frustrating his efforts to make the island pay as a commercial enterprise.  In this connection he adopted every new pest control system that was developed to exterminate them.  So it was that Sir Charles Martin brought the virulent strain of the virus known as Myxomatosis cuniculi to the island.  In his choice of Skokholm Sir Charles had decided that the possibility of the virus being carried from Skokholm to wild rabbits elsewhere was too remote to constitute a public danger.  He made three separate attempts to induce myxomatosis in Skokholm rabbits in 1936, 1937 and 1938. Although in each attempt the rabbits inoculated with the virus appeared to have died within the usual period of less than fourteen days, there was little or no spread to uninoculated rabbits. The result of the Skokholm experiment was to dismiss any use of the virus as a rabbit control measure.

However, in October 1953 myxomatosis’ was introduced into south-eastern England by unknown means and was first notified in October 1953. Attempts were at first made to eradicate it, but it spread and was established at twelve places in the south-eastern counties by the spring of 1954. It was recorded from Wales in May and from Scotland in July, its spread in these cases having undoubtedly been helped by the transfer of diseased rabbits to uninfected areas. Most of England and Wales south of a line from the Wash to the Wirral peninsula was affected by the end of 1954, and every county in northern England had some infection. Deliberate spreading of the disease by transfer of infected rabbits was made an offence in November. Virulence remained high, generally with a mortality of about. 99 per cent., through 1955, and the disease was present in most parishes in Great Britain by the end of the year. After an epidemic, which killed up to 99% of mainland animals, sporadic cases continued to occur among the depleted population to the present day.

4  Skomer: rabbits and vegetation

A broad scientific framework for understanding the natural history of Skomer was established in a report of a seven month long expedition to survey the island, organised by the West Wales Field Society in 1946. At that time Skomer was emerging from a period during the war when rabbits had been culled in a semi-agricultural system and   the central fields had been lightly grazed by a few cattle and sheep .  Short rabbit nibbled floriferous pastures dominated the landscape, which were described as being springy and pleasant to walk over.

The principal vector of myxomatosis in Britain in 1954 and 1955 was the rabbit flea, Spilopsyllus cuniculi. Rabbits remained numerous on the island of Skokholm where they were free from fleas, but nearly all were destroyed on Skomer.  When I first set foot on Skomer in 1971, the rabbit population was subject to a year on year cyclic rise and fall as myxomatosis had begun to equilibrate with its rabbits and their fleas. From an  island that in 1957 had been lush with grass it was returning to a more patchy landscape dominated by common rabbit resistant plants .  In the late 1960s the springy turf had been reduced to a very thin covering, with many mossy patches and bare ground. The turf was  no longer thick enough to feel pleasant underfoot. Because rabbits live at a such a high density, up to 40 per acre on Skomer, every part of the island, apart from the cliff ledges inaccessible to them, was affected by their burrowing, trampling, scraping, defecation and grazing. There were fears of soil erosion, particularly on the western cliff tops, where nesting burrows of shearwaters and puffins were at risk..  Also, there were several large expanding gull colonies in the centre of the island feeding on household food waste available on mainland rubbish dumps.

As a result of discussions with the staff of the Nature Conservancy Council who were managing the island, it was agreed that I should evaluate the idea of an imminent erosion threat.  This would involve undergraduates from my department spending two weeks on Skomer in long term group work on the impact of rabbits and gulls, but they would also have their individual self motivated projects that would throw light on the ecological dynamics of other species and give them a taste of what real scientific thinking was about. For the first few years of this work the Cardiff student group was based in the ‘Rabbit Catcher’s Hut’ at the farm..

Long term effort was required because everyone recognised that ecological processes occur and interact at various spatial and temporal scales that require long periods of surveillance to detect and evaluate. In contrast, most ecological research occurs over short periods of time and is limited in its spatial extent, restricting our understanding of longer-term and broader-scale processes. The resulting gaps in our ecological knowledge are sometimes labelled the “invisible present”  and the “invisible place”. Without baseline data to provide a reference it is difficult to infer what long-term changes may be occurring and whether short-term local studies are representative or merely anecdotal. Although top-down effects of particular herbivores and carnivores at the landscape level are now well-recognized, these have generally been demonstrated to occur locally and over short periods of time. Importantly, we now have ample evidence that herbivores such as rabbits and deer can dramatically affect plant communities derived from fenced exclosure studies, island studies, and direct observation. Nevertheless, doubts and uncertainty persist concerning whether such long term impacts are serious or pervasive and how long they persist.

It turned out that Skomer’s gull problem was a temporary one and by 1985 the number of breeding pairs had dropped to about 10% of the 1960s peak.  Regarding rabbits, looking back three decades we can now see that the catastrophic effect of myxomatosis on Skomer had set in motion long term ecological forces expressed in repeated cycles of plant succession.  This produces a fairly predictable surface mosaic related to the rise and fall in the rabbit population, punctuated by rare winter inundations of the island by gale-born salt spray. Regarding weather, the log of the 1946 expedition to Skomer recorded a severe September gale that snapped bracken stems about a foot from the ground, withering vegetation well into the centre of the island.

Looking back, these relatively short lived grassland microcosms characteristically appear and disappear in cycles of plant succession, occupying decades and take place alongside population trends in longer lived colonies of bracken and heath.  At any time the botanical patchiness of Skomer is revealed as a dynamic mosaic of microcosms, with long and short periods.  The longer trends, particularly in heathland, are possibly the outcome of local climate change.

The above conclusions have come from a few sampling sites representative of unenclosed  cliff tops and the large central fields.  However, the island has been compartmented by generations of prehistoric farmers eking out a living from a relatively small space.  Aerial surveys have shown that this has resulted in a complex pattern of small enclosures now only visible at ground level, which extend below the much larger Victorian enclosures.  This raises the question as to what extent this prehistoric field pattern is influencing the current pattern of vegetation.  Phosphorus is unique among the elements in being a sensitive and persistent indicator of human activity. It has long been of interest to archaeologists because of its potential to inform them about the presence of past human occupation and to offer clues regarding the type and intensity of human activity.  In particular several properties of phosphates lead to long-lasting residual ecological effects of phosphate used for crop fertilization. Phosphorus occurs in the soil in several different chemical forms, most of which are relatively insoluble in water, sensitive to pH changes, and immobile. Soil phosphate can also be grouped into inorganic and organic forms.  On Skomer the use of phosphate fertilizer, from manure, is evident in the distribution of stinging nettles   Availability of phosphate is the chief factor affecting their distribution and they may be taken as indicators of the effects of prehistoric agriculture.  For example, in a small prehistoric rectangular enclosure the vegetation inside can be quite different from that outside.  In particular, nettles are found inside but not outside.

5 Skomer: aerial drone surveys

Vegetation is more of a continuum than a set of distinct units. Holistic knowledge on vegetation heterogeneity, scenic patterns and species dynamics is therefore an indispensable prerequisite for identifying and understanding ecological processes and hence, providing subsequent insight for managing ecosystems .  Geographic Information Systems (GIS) represent a considerable change in environmental data management, as they connect territorial information to different databases, allowing for the “integration” of the territory, adding and producing new information. The use of remote sensing tools, permits the gathering of many kinds of territorial information and the investigation of aspects that are difficult to monitor.

The ability to estimate plant distributions over large areas (i.e., several hectares) using traditional approaches (transect or quadrat methods) is generally limited because of the time and expense required. Intensive plant surveys may also result in unacceptable levels of disturbance to sensitive ecosystems due to soil compaction, disruption of soil organic layers, trampling, and vegetation damage. This is an important issue on Skomer where there is a high density of relatively shallow nesting burrows.  Remote sensing via satellites provides information on landforms and the general distribution of vegetation types over large areas.  However,  it is unlikely to provide adequate spatial or temporal resolution for determining the distributions of individual species or fine-scale differentiation among surface landscape features and vegetation types. Moreover, available satellite images may not represent optimal phenological stages for the identification of different species and vegetation types. Manned aircraft and large drone surveys can have increased resolution, but are prohibitively expensive for most investigations.   Generally, they do not provide a high enough resolution to assess the distributions and compositions of plant communities. On the other hand, utilization of micro–unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, unmanned aerial systems [UAS], small aerial drones) do provide adequate levels of image detail to estimate the distribution of individual plant species or vegetation types over several hectares at a relatively low cost. Therefore, in 2017, to get the holistic picture of Skomer’s vegetation, drone technology will be applied to make a digital surface model.   The goal is to define the advantages and limitations of small aerial drone surveys covering the whole of the island for estimating the distributions of individual plant species and vegetation types making up the surface landscape at fine spatial scales.  In particular, the aim is to plot the impact of rabbit behaviour.  Hopefully this will be a fifty year old dream come true.

6 Web appendices

Skomer mind map

Dream islands

A campfire meditation
7  Web references,_Judie.pdf