Enlichenment, Enlivenment and the Poetics of Place

A 5-day workshop with Marlene Creates, Trevor Goward & Don McKay

24—29 April 2017

Sponsors: Thompson Rivers University, the Wells Gray Wilderness Society, Edgewood Wild

The Workshop: We envision an intimate gathering of open-hearted individuals from various backgrounds and perspectives. Through a series of lectures, outings and campfire chats, participants will converge on a practical understanding of a key biological system – the ‘lowly’ lichen – as an entry point into wider ecological (and ecopoetic) thinking. The idea is to encourage wide-ranging discussion around recent biological insights that are now redefining our relation to the more-than-human world – and at the same time giving pride of place to poetic experience. (But mostly we just want to have a good time communing in thoughtful discourse in a beautiful part of Canada).

Participants: This workshop is ideal for writers, visual artists, students of natural history and biological science, academics interested in interdisciplinary work, and indeed for anyone seriously engaged in building a sustainable relationship with Gaia.

Maximum Enrolment: 12

Tuition: $500.00. One tuition scholarship available for an early-career participant.

To Register: If you’d like to join us, kindly submit a short statement (1-2 paragraphs) describing how you see this workshop intersecting with your work, intellectual development and/or artistic practice. Submissions should be addressed to Dr. Lyn Baldwin: lybaldwin@tru.ca or Biological Science, Thompson Rivers University, 900 McGill Rd, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8.

Deadline for Registration: 28 February 2017 (But the earlier the better)

Workshop Leaders:

Photo of artist Marlene creates

Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet. For over 35 years her work has been an exploration of the relationship between human experience and the land, and the impact they have on each other. Underlying all her work is an interest in place – not as a geographical location but as a process that involves memory, multiple narratives, ecology, language, and both specialized and vernacular knowledge. Her work has been presented in over 350 exhibitions and screenings, both across Canada and internationally, and is in many public collections, including the National Gallery of Canada. www.marlenecreates.ca

photo of lichenologist Trevor Goward

Trevor Goward is an accomplished field naturalist, lichenologist and self-appointed inspector of deer trails. He is also author of more than 100 scientific papers, scores of popular pieces, and six books: www.waysofenlichenment.net/trevor/writings. When not gardening or wandering/pondering the wilds of his home valley in south-central British Columbia, Trevor engages in numerous seemingly random pursuits and thought experiments including designer living, land apprenticeship, naturalist mentorship, wilderness advocacy, systems theory, poetic ecology, the mythic universe of J.R.R. Tolkien, and (through this last) a stewardship practice he calls ‘elvenwork’.

Photo of poet Don McKay

Don McKay is a poet and essayist whose books have won many awards, including two Governor General’s Awards, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Winterset Award, and the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award. His most recent book of poetry, Angular Unconformity: collected poems 1970-2014, was published in 2014 by Goose Lane Editions. He has taught at the University of Western Ontario, the University of New Brunswick, and the Banff Centre for the Arts, and he has been an editor and co-publisher of Brick Books since 1975. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2009.


Day 1: arrival and orientation; evening presentation by Trevor Goward
Day 2: Hike #1 with Trevor, Don, and Marlene; free time for exploring; evening chat around the campfire
Day 3: presentation by Marlene Creates including a memory map drawing workshop and discussion; free time for writing and exploring
Day 4: presentation by Don McKay; Hike #2 with Don, Marlene, and Trevor; free time for writing and exploring
Day 5: presentations by participants; free time for writing and exploring; campfire chat
Day 6: departure

Photo of Hemp Creek

Much in the nature of life, the Canyon River is forever creating itself in the act of its own flowing. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

Location: The workshop will be held in the Clearwater Valley near the southern portal of Wells Gray Provincial Park – a vast wilderness preserve six-hours northeast of Vancouver and two hours north of Kamloops: www.waysofenlichenment.net/wells. The geologic forces that shaped the Clearwater Valley – including both volcanic activity and glaciation, sometimes together – produced a landscape well known for its canyons, steep-sided mountains, fast-flowing rivers, and waterfalls to take the breath away. You can get a feeling for the place by linking to the slideshow here: wellsgrayworldheritage.ca.

Venue: Indoor portions of the workshop will take place in a rustic one-room school house located about 20 minutes north of Clearwater (= two hours north of Kamloops = about six hours northeast of Vancouver). For much of the time, however, we’ll be out tramping about or, in the evenings, chatting around the campfire. Late April is typically dry, given to cool sunny days and dewy or sometimes frosty nights. The ground will be snow-free but (assuming a ‘normal’ spring) the birch and aspen trees not yet quite leafed out. Please note: The Upper Clearwater Valley is a wild area; participants should come physically and psychologically prepared to ‘rough it.

Accommodation: $100 total for shared accommodation in field station cabins at Thompson Rivers University Wells Gray Wilderness Centre, with rustic kitchen facilities available. Participants bring and prepare their own food. For B&B or other accommodations in the Upper Clearwater Valley, please see www.wellsgraypark.info and www.wellsgray.ca. Tent and vehicle camping is available nearby at no cost.

storytelling around campfire

Swapping poems around the campfire – Lorna Crozier and Jane Munro at Speak to the Wild, one of our earlier events, held in September 2013. Photo by Saskia Wolsak.

Background: We envision this workshop as push-back to what many see as our culture’s profound disenchantment with the living green world that sustains it. Not only will we hold our Enlightenment heritage up to inspection, we’ll also engage with participants in an emerging worldview consistent with the recent findings of biological science and yet at the same time opening out to poetic experience.

The following four propositions serve as starting point for wide-ranging discussion.

The first proposition is that our Western Enlightenment narrative carries within it the seeds of its own (and our own) undoing. It is one thing to exalt individualism, human rights and democracy, but it’s quite another to carry anthropocentrism to its alt-right extreme, mistaking the living Earth for a warehouse in the service of human need and whim. Climate change in this view is not so much an ‘environmental problem’ – the kind of thing that can be put right through technological adjustment – as it is the enduring by-product of a worldview that sees itself as the source of all meaning in the universe.

Photo of Trailhead for Hemp Creek.

Every well-worn path is always a mind print: the enduring outward expression of a succession of inward decisions taken long ago. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

Our second proposition is that meaning, far from being the exclusive province of humankind, is an inherent property of all life. Or beteaning and life are two aspects of the same thing. Such is the paradigm now being gestured to by cognitive biology and related disciplines – a science-based perspective that dispenses once and for all with Descartes’ ill-starred separation of mind and matter. Though anticipated by many earlier thinkers, this perspective has recently been unfolded to its various implications by the German theoretician and biologist Andreas Weber. “Even the simplest organism,” says Weber, “must now be understood as a material system displaying the intention to maintain itself intact, to grow, to unfold, and to make a fuller scope of life for itself.” Weber refers to this style of thinking as Enlivenment – a term he introduces in his 2013 essay, Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics. Enlivenment, he says, unites three radical ideas: first, that life is fundamentally self-organizing or autopoietic; second, that to be alive is to have a point of view, that is, to experience the world subjectively; and, third, that subjectivity – lived experience – is an active player both in the elaboration of living systems and in evolutionary process itself.

Our third proposition is that recognition of subjectivity as a motive force in nature carries us well beyond our human-centred Enlightenment metaphysics to a relation of reciprocity with the living Earth. Because, however, lived experience is necessarily inaccessible to reductionist science, whatever power it has to inform social mores must take its authority from poetic understanding, or what Weber refers to as ‘poetic ecology’. Whereas our prevailing neoliberal ideology of efficiency and growth insists that awe, love and generosity are mere tactics invented by our genes for enhanced survival, poetic ecology gives pride of place to aesthetic experience. Another way of saying this is that poetic ecology is the part of human existence accessible via the heart rather than the head – perhaps more accessible to the artist than to the scientist.

Sunshine Lichen

The ever-enigmatic Sunshine Lichen. Does she or doesn’t she? Something to talk about. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

This brings us to our fourth and final proposition, namely that the final test of any metaphysics of life must surely be the living system. Here we propose that the living system most informative for Enlivenment is the lowly lichen. Lichens are multiple organisms (they consist of fungi, algae, and probably bacteria) and hence stand at a kind of existential doorway. When we look through this doorway in one direction, what we see is ecosystem. Yet when we look through this same doorway in the other direction, what we see is organism. The key insight here is that lichens are simultaneously ecosystems and organisms: a paradox: the sound of one hand clapping. As it happens, Enlivenment invites us to engage in precisely this same paradoxical style of thinking – from which it would seem to follow that the surest path from Enlightenment to Enlivenment is through Enlichenment.

All of these reflections trace back sooner or later to the work of Gregory Bateson, the American anthropologist, social scientist, cyberneticist and semiotician who saw the living wor a nested series of feedback systems bound together through relationships of dominance and dependency. Bateson searched all his life for what he called ‘the pattern that connects’ – a concept he later came to equate with ‘the sacred’. He also took exception to the prevailing 20th century view that life is reducible to the flow and exchange of energy, insisting instead that that it’s more about the flow and exchange of information – a view in keeping with Weber’s emphasis on subjectivity. These (and other) ideas have more recently been reframed as biosemiotics – biology conceived as the study of signs – an emerging discipline perhaps most ably articulated by the Danish scholar Jesper Hoffmeyer. Our workshop will explore the thinking of both Bateson and Hoffmeyer through the lens of the lichen symbiosis.

Hemp Creek Plateau

Come April, please join us for five intense days of wide-ranging conversation as we search for the poetry of life and of place. Photo Fritz Schaer.

Bateson’s principle of nested systems leads quite naturally upwards to the Earth system itself, a.k.a. Gaia. At the same time it also leads downward to place: Gaia in miniature: the final emphasis of our workshop. Place is not only geographical location but also an intersection in the habits of creatures and natural phenomena. It comes about in interactions between organisms (including people) and their environment. In this segment of the workshop participants will be invited to perform exercises that engage with life forms and place through writing, drawing memory maps, and discussion. Time will also be provided for individual writing and discussion of maps, poems, and prose sketches.

Suggested Readings:

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Hampton Press: 2002).
Gregory Bateson & Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (Bantam Books, 1988); see also www.oikos.org/angelsmental.htm
Marlene Creates: www.marlenecreates.ca
Trevor Goward, Twelve Readings on the Lichen Thallus (Evansia: 2008-2011); see also www.waysofenlichenment.net/ways/readings/index.
Jesper Hoffmeyer, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana University Press, 1997).
Jesper Hoffmeyer, “Semiotics of Nature” in The Routledge Companion to Semiotics (Routledge, 2009).
Don McKay, The Shell of the Tortoise: Four Essays and an Assemblage (Gaspereau Press, 2011).
Andreas Weber, Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics. (autor-andreas-weber.de/downloads/Intro_Enlivenment_en.pdf), 2013.
Andreas Weber, The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science (New Society, 2016).