6th March, 2019

Dear Nature book launch

Last night I attended the launch of Dear Nature, an important new work from renowned Nottingham artist John Newling. I was also invited to give a reading from the book.

Last year, Newling wrote 81 letters to Nature; one per day. Here's the Beam Editions introduction to the project:

The letters echo the sentiment of a series of letters to a loved one but with a voice of humanity attempting to come to terms with its relationship to nature. The letters take you on a journey through the history of agriculture, economics, religion and capitalism to the present day. Newling describes the values that have underpinned human endeavour and shaped our world.

But most importantly, Dear Nature describes that which all humans with a conscience, deep down, must feel right now about nature. This book offers a new state of mind for the future, rooted in balance and respect.

The launch event began with nine readings, each of us invited because our work in some way promotes sustainability or finds influence in nature. Other readers included artist Wolfgang Buttress, Small Food Bakery’s Kimberley Bell, community gardener Rachael Hemmings and food activist Shona Monroe. Also in my case, I’d commissioned Newling in a previous life: his Broadway Ices artwork for the You Are Here festival, way back in 2003.

I chose to read his 23rd February letter, which focuses on the language of natural patterns: how we interpret disruption to these patterns, and the realisation that in most cases we’re to blame for that disruption; an atavistic understanding that brings us full circle.

The core of the evening saw Sarah Shalgosky interview Newling. Here are my rough notes from that discussion.

  • Unknowns
  • John explains that there are good unknowns and also bad unknowns. Bad unknowns might be politics, governments, corruption, capitalism, etc. Good unknowns are, for example, exploring, learning; scientific and natural discovery.
  • Time
  • He talked a lot about time. Slow time. Patience and natural order, the seasons and age. Humans convert linear time into progress. Sarah suggests life is more like a big sheet of bubble wrap, popping in random places rather than a logical path.
  • John noted that it is in our linear view of time that we will notice the significant changes; changes in the rhythms, seasonal variation, disruption to expected patterns.
  • Local
  • I like his thoughts about thinking “local”. Localising. Observing our locality in greater detail; looking closer. Beauty is there, and truth equals beauty.
  • John suggests that 65% of the way humans view the natural world is through glass of some kind. He notes that we typically connect with the Amazon or other faraway places of wonder rather than what is happening right here, where we live.
  • He explains that artists are great at “here”. “Here” as in humans existing on a planet floating in space, but also “here” as more of a “local” notion.
  • Sustainability
  • We must be more sustainable; if we are, then we each help to save everything of value.
  • He predicts that there will be no countries; that the idea of borders will become unsustainable, and there will be unmanageable migration — in 50/60 years it will all collapse.
  • The weight of the world
  • He was once asked if he thought the world weighed more as the population swells by millions, billions. He explains that of course, it doesn’t weigh any more; that everything returns, renews, is repurposed. This relates to matter.
  • Plant networks
  • He talks about learning from science and notes that we decoded plants very late, perhaps 2002. We still don't understand much about how they communicate, but communicate they do; hidden networks. He shares an example of a sage plant communicating with its cuttings to ward off pests.
  • Love
  • He reminds us that there is no Plan B. He believes that farming should be a paid public service. He talks about social ecology. He speaks of love; suggests that love is our greatest achievement.
  • Circular works
  • There isn’t much direct talk about Dear Nature itself; the letters. Sarah suggests there’s a noticeable arc to the letters, and John says all his work is in some way circular. The work has apparently already been translated into French and German. Sir David Attenborough has a copy, and he shares an anecdote about clamming up over dinner with the great man.
  • What is Nature?
  • Sarah asks who or what he imagines he’s writing to? His response is vague but he explains his distrust of organised religion which becomes obsessed with itself, and it’s own rules. This leads him to an observation that when good or bad things happen to us, we look to something else, maybe something greater than ourselves. He’s writing to something more significant but isn’t entirely sure what form that takes.
  • Engage
  • We need, as he says in his letters, “skin in the game”. To be involved; we need to feel a part of the solution, the action, the response. We need to be engaged in the unknowns.

The event was thoroughly enjoyable and insightful, and so much of what Newling outlines and uncovers resonates with me. A number of the letters do, however, point a dismissive finger at digital technology (thoughts he echoes in the interview), and I think he's less convinced that tech, data and portable devices can play a positive role in educating and reconnecting us to the world around us.

After twenty years of building digital products and following the evolution of digital tech, I’m fully aware of all the negatives, and others are doing good work exposing and monitoring that, but I need to unearth positives. The technology is clearly ineradicable, so I believe we must also weave a pragmatic and optimistic thread, where we each reconsider the purpose of our own devices and the role they might play in improving our lives. Every day I uncover yet more encouraging examples where digital technology and our devices are strengthening our connection to place and nature, offering a different kind of hope.

Dear Nature is designed and published by Beam Editions. The launch took place at Nottingham Contemporary on the evening of 5th March 2019. Sarah Shalgosky represented Mead Gallery and the University of Warwick.

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