Earthlines and Uncivilisation

It’s been a little while since we’ve posted on here. The quiet since the publication of Towards a New Time Culture is partly because we’ve needed a break from online life and partly because much of the conversation about time culture has been offline.

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Earthlines brought an article about time culture in their May issue based on the short piece The otherness of time – A conversation with Jay Griffiths, part of which you can read below. And in a few weeks’ time we’ll be hosting a conversation about time culture at the Uncivilisation festival in Hampshire. The session is advertised as an exploration of the role of time in our lifeworlds and a mutual inquiry into practices that can help us recognise and live better within the many dimensions of time.

We hope to see you there – word has it that there are still a few tickets left (this will be the last of the Dark Mountain festivals and it is bound to be a fantastic weekend). Our session will be running on Saturday on the Parachute stage, so if you find yourself there come and join in the conversation.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the Earthlines article, Reflections on Building a New Time Culture – in Conversation with Jay Griffiths.

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Not long ago my sister told me of a moment in a our childhood when I picked up a piece of rubbish she had thrown in the woods and explained how long it takes for plastic to decompose in nature. I went on to vaguely assert that I wanted to do something “like that” when I grew up. Now, as an adult who currently spends more time reading, thinking and writing about ‘nature’ than I do observing, sleeping or walking outdoors, I think of this statement with a certain degree of fondness (although I am not sure I can quite recall the moment). It is as if I already knew what I needed to know about life, and everything since then has been a detour. The long way round to find out something I always knew. More than anything, it seems like a humorous turn in the road: one of those that you only realise draws a circle once you have exhausted yourself traversing a rugged mountain range.

But the detour was not just a distraction. What I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, as a child was that what I intuitively felt I wanted to work with was being assaulted by the culture I grew up within. That the defilement was not just the physical degradation of nature’s integrity but an ideological assault which was already infiltrating my language and my mind. An attack which expresses itself culturally as estrangement and separation from that which we call nature, which is to say our own rooted selves. It denies us the source of our deep belonging while offering only simulacra in its place. The veil created by the story that we are beings separate from something called nature – a story propped up by the very words we use to tell it – is like a stage backdrop painted in the colours of loss. It is a hyper-realistic scenography, one that too easily let’s us forget that it is a theatrical property.

This story is showing irreversible cracks which we can peer through. But taking the steps towards these dreary tears in the fabric of our world to examine what’s behind the stage is not simple. The process of discovering a black hole in my culture, seeing into its dark heart, and discovering that deep levels of abuse and violence underpins the world I live in has been sorrowful. It is also an experience I am beginning to see as the first steps towards recovering the joy I felt as a child kicking about in the woods. Rejoicing in the nature we have left may contain the seeds of a culture which can again belong to the planet. The deep sorrow we feel by the continuing impoverishment of the fabric of life is an injury which it is our generational task to accept and heal. And we can only heal the wounds by simultaneously reclaiming joy as our rightful inheritance as creatures of the Earth.

When we come full circle in some part of our lives there is a moment where we can see clearly that we have arrived at the same point we were at before. We can ignore this and continue walking around in circles or we can use this moment to set out on a different course. Re-prioritise. The rediscovery of my childish sentiment about nature has been one such moment. But I have found that there is no way back to the long afternoons playing in the forest, I have become over-educated and indebted in the meantime. If I want to follow my childhood dream I have to start from where I have ended up and look for ways to live more in tune with nature in the midst of a broken culture.

This means piecing together new uses for matter and mind. If it takes four hundred years for a plastic bottle to biodegrade we better find some good uses for it. Likewise we’ve got quite a lot of mental constructs that are in need of new meanings. The language we speak is replete with words that distance ‘us’ from something we call ‘nature’, we talk of ‘wildlife’ and the ‘environment’. We need to find ways to relate to the living world that doesn’t transform our selves into Consumers and reduce sensual participation into Experience. Ways of seeing the world in terms of its inherent interconnectedness. Ways of walking through the woods that doesn’t leave behind a trail of litter.

In the same way that the time it takes for plastic to decompose is a metaphor powerful enough to stop children littering, we could do with concepts strong enough to bring reverence, respect and care into our relationship with the natural world. Understanding the timescales not just of the impacts of our pollution but of the ecologies with live within can be a way to deepen our relations with the others of nature. In late 2011 a series of conversations led me and my friend Morten Svenstrup, who had been my companion in the woods of childhood, to explore why time had seemingly been speeding up in the course of the last years. And this brought us into a widening dialogue about how understanding the timescales of the various beings and things we encounter can become a way of tuning into the world around us.

We have called this dialogue time culture because it is a shared exploration of how understanding the life-cycles inherent in our surroundings can provide a foundation for a culture that moves beyond seeing humans and nature as separate. Around the time this conversation took off, Morten was writing his thesis Time, Art, and Society in which he explores the insight that when we engage with an art work we pay attention in a way we don’t always do with other objects. The composition of an art piece, its inherent timing, cannot be forced to fit whatever our personal sense of time may be. Being a cellist he was very aware that if we want to really engage with music, we have to surrender our immediate sense of time and listen. The question arose: what happens if we take the kind of attention we bring to bear on a painting, a symphony or a poem into our everyday surroundings and listen to the inherent time of our neighbourhood, a nearby woodland, or our own bodies?

Doing this, we encounter an astonishing diversity of timescales which make mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as a singular, universal, abstract Time. The present is made up of a multiplicity of lifetimes and getting past our personal view and tuning into what can perhaps best be described as a symphonic view of time, we immediately get a sense of the richness of life. By sidestepping our notion of time as something that is outside of ourselves and independent of us, we see that everything has its own time, an Eigenzeit. This can work as an antidote to the speed that marks a society driven by principles of efficiency and growth. It is a practice which begins simply with noticing the world around us, paying attention and becoming present but leads to a deeper understanding and connection with the places we inhabit. Because once we become aware that the ‘environment’ is not something that exists solely as a backdrop to what plays out on human timescales, we hear that everything also speaks its own language.

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