Growing up, the little girl cried often at the things humans were doing to the planet and to each other. She did sponsored walks to save the otters, knew the common name of every British butterfly, and set up a Council whose mission was to rescue drowning worms from puddles.
Secondary school was a brutal place where a hierarchy of girls kept each other in line through various degrees of emotional cruelty. This girl, being flat-footed and flat-chested until she was fifteen, kept a low profile. The boys on the train never looked at her and her adolescent female friendships were confusing. She found solace in worshipping her English teacher, and poured her soul into creative writing as a form of adulation.
At eighteen she spent a year working at a boarding school in Australia. She was under-utilised (cling-wrapping library books) and tried to run away to volunteer at a rhino reserve in Sumatra; but her mother forbade it, and being an obedient girl she stayed put.
At university she studied philosophy and literature. Philosophy seemed mostly ridiculous: why on earth were these people discussing whether or not the physical world existed, when were in the process of destroying it? She did not, however, posit a connection between these two phenomena. She was never a bold student and always felt that if she had got through more of the vast reading list she would not have such stupid objections. Ethics excited her though. She went hunt sabotaging, and felt alive.
She discovered trapeze at that time and threw herself into it with a passion, discovering a physical adeptness she had never imagined she might possess, and a direct immediacy of experience that she yearned for.
Then in January 1996 she went with her best friend to Newbury, where seven miles of ancient woodland were being fought over by those wanting to build a road through it and those trying to protect it. This was a profound experience. Primeval oaks. Badger setts. Full moon over snow. Woodsmoky tea with anarchists. She identified with the environmental protesters but always struggled with the Us and Them mentality. All the time, she was searching for the soul looking out from each security guard’s face – trying to connect, trying to find the commonality and the common sense beneath the costume. What about the Common Good? Her tears were always there, waiting to brim over at any confrontation.
One day she found herself dangling in a harness from a doomed tree, diggers beneath her, fire all around, rage and pain gargling out of her, larger than her body. If she had been better versed in radical thought, she might have concluded from that experience that government policymakers don’t listen to ecological wisdom. Instead, wanting to be a good girl, and averse to conflict, she shied away from ‘dropping out’. She decided to take a different approach: she moved to London and set about arming herself with facts and figures, with the intention of working in government or policy to help bring about environmental change from within the institutions of power.
But in order to work in academia and campaigning she systematically devalued her own unique gifts. She didn’t see how her tentative creativity and her raw heart fitted into that context. She had had a good education. She was one of the most privileged people on the planet. How could her fumbling efforts at art-making ever be justified as a serious way of giving back? The scale of the crisis was so immense there could surely be no time for anything more than the most focused fighting of it. She believed that she only needed to learn the language of scientific objectivity, and rational argument; she might become an effective footsoldier if she channelled her ecological pain into her attempts to develop rhetorical powers of persuasion and polemic.
But she continued to wake up in the night with adrenalin pulsing through her veins, and to cry and shout at news stories of whaling and disappearing islands.
The girl read nothing but science and environmental policy textbooks for years. But it was to no avail. The language was difficult for her and she could not master it. She was mediocre. She was stupid. She floundered and found hot embarrassed tears prickling her eyes at environmental industry networking events. She felt no affinity with the middle-aged men all around her; she sweated and squirmed in suits and smart shoes; she stared out of double-glazed windows at the sky. She dreamt of scurrying forms, and sunlight shining through leaves.
The girl could not yet articulate the profound tension between the ecological facts that she recognized and felt in her body, and the patriarchal business- and technology-centric operating mode that she was attempting to fit into. She was battered by her participation in the discourse of impending ecological doom and techno-solutions. She didn’t understand it consciously but her body knew it of course. After work each day she kept training as a trapeze artist. In the circus school she could find some kind of escape, some portal to a dream-life, a sanctuary where there was only breath, muscle, rope, metal, fear, delight. She discovered a kindred spirit there and together they talked of revolution and created aerial performances laden with what they hoped was metaphor.
At weekends she went dancing, sometimes performing on the trapeze, searching for some communion, some kind of wordless dissolving, some beauty, something unfathomable.
She longed to escape from the confines of her working world, but the familiar feelings of mediocrity were simply transferred to the circus when she attempted to find work there. When the skills she had been nurturing so privately and shyly were transferred into a commercial domain she discovered that the world of performance could be elitist, narcissistic and judgmental. She felt clumsy and stupid. It was shattering. She retreated and vowed not to expose herself like a dog doing tricks and risk being judged again. She watched the bendy girls and the ferociously ambitious rising stars from the edge of the room. She felt sick with longing for their glamorous camaraderie. She was fat and stiff compared to them. She had two left feet. She would never fit in. Her friend moved abroad. Her ludicrous longing to somehow integrate ecological insight and aerial practice stayed private.
Then after a trip to India she started making and using puppets. Something about their metaphorical essence gave her a new way to speak. Like a door into a primitive unconscious. In puppetry she discovered some of the most moving theatre she had ever seen. She got a job as a performer at a tiny puppet theatre. She met three women there who would go on to become her true sisters. She loved it and felt utterly alive when devising, but on tour she felt lonely – echoes of her loneliness in the circus and the conference centre – yearning for deeper, slower relationships, for dialogue, rather than the fleeting intangible connection between the audience and the performer during a show.
She trained as a teacher. After work on the fourth day of the week in which she started her PGCE, the young woman found herself in a primary school caretaker’s room, huddled with strangers around a television, watching blurred footage of a plane flying into a tower. Words failed. The world made no sense. How do you teach in a world that makes no sense? What do you teach? Where do you begin? She took to working 60-hour weeks, partying all weekend, and furtively spending her wages on expensive clothes.
In school, she thrived on relationship but struggled mightily with hierarchy and crowd control. All the prescriptions and rules. It was a brutal, brutalising place. She was overwhelmed by all those consciousnesses, all that potential, those complex young psyches and their needs and their surging fragile egos. She felt that everyone there including her needed therapy, and longed for a gentler way of learning.
Numbed away from introspective reflection, and driven by biological instinct, she got married impulsively to a poor match and became a mother. Many hours into her labour, she grew afraid that she was dying – that she would not be able to push the baby out. Then she had a body-vision. She felt herself connected to all the women, all the mammals who had ever given birth, the women on piles of blankets, in hospitals and in huts and caves, all the mares and does and lionesses on their sides, all the female creatures on that threshold, as well as the babies they were bringing into the world – those who died and those who succeeded; she understood in her fibres that she was part of a ceaseless continuum of life making life; her son was born – and so, in a way, was she.
Having a baby shone new light on all her ecological pain. Absolute intimacy and connection. The paradoxical sorrow and beauty of initiating a new consciousness into this world. Warmskin thumbsuck hairwhorl kiss. Milkleak.
New motherhood taught the woman hard lessons: how difficult it is to lumber upstairs with the groceries and a baby in a buggy; how people watch and like to tell you how to parent, and judge your every decision; how exhaustion makes your eyes sink back into your skull; how invisible you become, how angry you feel, how you discover that sexual equality is a myth, how the entire persona you have created for yourself falls away as you become animal, become food, become servant, become anonymous; how much work women do silently because it needs to be done, how that work is mostly unpaid and often unacknowledged even by those closest to you. How you have to teach your children to modify their instincts to fit in with norms, how helping them grow up is helping them to navigate a sick culture, how you have to explain words like extinct and war, how you fear continually that they will run into the road, how they are mesmerized by lousy films, how you have to clench your teeth as well-meaning people feed them sweets and plastic guns. How disposable nappies do not biodegrade.
One day she looked out of the window and saw the tree outside her house being cut down. That tree had been a guardian, making her feel sane. She watched the entire process and sensed that she would not be living in that house, with her husband, much longer either. She remembered Newbury, the trees stripped of their branches systematically, underneath the person at the top left waiting in the snow for the inevitable crane and handcuffs.
Discovering that she could no longer navigate as an honorary man or as a pliant young person who could just fit in and take the path of least resistance, the woman found herself using an unfamiliar voice – an assertive voice that said,
This will not do. There is more to living than this. There is another way. I don’t know what, but I know it doesn’t feel like this.
She left her bad marriage, and took her son to live by the sea. As soon as she arrived, a community of women opened its arms to her. Her voice lost its high choked tightness and regained its familiar timbre.
She often sat on the beach with her son and watched him play with the pebbles. She read feminism, and primitivist polemic. She began to volunteer at the community allotment and to learn about growing food. The men there spoke little and had cracked, blackened hands. Emerging from the compost toilet one evening, seeing the sun setting and the chickens pecking, she found tears running down her face and realized that somehow this place had saved her. She knelt. She wanted to give it thanks and honour it. She wondered about bringing her own creativity there, and asked her two best friends if they would make a site-specific performance with her.
This was an exciting time. Something new was happening. Working outside, and in kitchens, surrounded by toddlers, and drinking tea, mingling intense philosophy and gossip, the women were gestating a feral theatre company. They trusted and knew each other intimately. They were purposeful, balancing and pushing each other.
Many people came to the Samhain performance. They sat on planks and straw bales in brilliant autumn sunshine. It was a puppet story about seeds and sacrifice. Children intervened frequently. There was music, and fire afterwards, and food (always lots of food), and cider, and blankets and dogs, and a view of the night sea.
After this, the women know that they need to develop this work. They decide to spend a whole year making place- and season-specific performances to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices, and the cross-quarters. They discover ancient words and try them in their mouths: Ostara. Imbolc. Mabon. They practice howling at the moon. Through an improvised process they find they are connecting with a deeper awareness of time and place. This is their land; it’s an epiphany, realising that! They begin to remember what they had known as children, before they got distracted by trying too hard to be grown-up.
They learn about witchcraft and shamanism. They want to honour the mothers and tribes before them: the uncounted women, and whole primitive cultures, with unwritten names and forgotten stories who have died, many of them silenced violently. They realise that they are connecting to a lineage, an oral tradition that is in jeopardy. Yet using the old language and rituals feels awkward and stiff – the women cannot simply pick up these tools and use them; they refer to a world now past, to faraway places and forgotten skills. The women need to find a language that reflects their own contemporary experience as well as recognising that of their foremothers, and of the victims of their culture’s psychotic rampage around the world. They also seek to listen to what this place and these beings here and now are telling them about what is happening now and what has gone before.
They are searching for a language, a feral language of art in which words are not primary, in which the company supports the individual selves in a creative dissolving which gives way to some kind of symbiotic larger self, with the players and their faculties not separate but flowing. Instinctively they are creating a transpersonal working process.
They obsess over the idea of activism and what that means in the context of art. How to shift the language of change from polemic to heart, belly, soul? How can their work enhance political struggle whilst nurturing a different sort of transformation? They tell each other their dreams and their dreamt-up stories, and with each telling they discover their own unconscious yearnings, and hold space for new insights and connections to emerge. Clumsily they are fumbling towards a shared ecological language in which private longings and sorrows are heard, and recognized as universal, epic, primal. Yes – the urge to worship and give thanks is innate.
They make up songs.
They cook feasts with food from the allotments.
They are enthusiastic and make mistakes.
They talk about the power of women’s groups, and the value of their own improvised, intuitive methodology. What does it mean, to make feral art? It is not straightforward. It is an aspiration and a journey.
They have no money. They use only found materials. They make puppets out of straw and old jumpers. They explore Peter Brook’s concept of Rough Theatre, in which all the actors have is their skill, their ingenuity and their complicity. They improvise. Sometimes the work is disappointing, inadvertently clichéd; this happens if it incorporates preconceptions rather than rigorously personal insights. The difficult tensions inherent in the effort to parent, to be earth citizens, and to make something beautiful are explored and expressed and feed into the best of their theatre.
At last, the woman in this story feels that she has found her place: this is what she wants to do with her life. But the feral theatre company undergoes a dramatic transformation as one earth-sister moves abroad and the other has a second child. The woman vows to keep this newborn Feral Theatre alive. She has to – otherwise nothing makes sense. But how can she do it alone? She feels lost again, scared again, scared that she will never find anything so beautiful again. Scared of what her voice will sound like if she tries to sing the feral songs alone. She is scared of losing the empathic human connection which has given her the space and the courage to connect creatively with the more-than-human.
In spring, she reads Arne Naess’s ‘Self-Realization’. When he describes his empathy for a dying flea, a light goes on inside her: the founding father of the Deep Ecology movement is describing precisely her own experience. The thing she knew from the beginning of her life – the childhood grief she felt for the fat caterpillar she saw crushed by a car; the parched newt on the pavement outside her home; the fallen nest, the mauled gerbil, the broken sapling – that feeling was real and important. She has spent a lifetime chastising herself for making babyish or sentimental displays; yet suddenly here is a powerfully authoritative voice assuring her that her empathy is not something to apologise for.
Her sense of connection is not an illusion. Her longing is grounded in a basic need. She is an ecological self – a displaced ecological being – like the newt on the kerb, like the polar bear on a concrete iceberg. She is part of a web whose strands are coming loose. The pain and the beauty of connectedness are like motherhood. Those beings are part of her and she is part of them. The tears she sheds for the coral reefs and the giant oaks – they are their tears. These beings are her: her family.
And the feral theatre company is also part of this huge family, which extends to a biophilic solidarity, an expanded sense of connection with all beings, beyond polemic or language. The woman sees that when we recognize that we are ecological selves, then there will be no need for polemic, because we will understand that hurting others is hurting ourselves – and so, rather than moral acts, we will perform beautiful acts. Beautiful acts. Suddenly here it is, a language for what she has been trying to do all this time. Feral theatre: beautiful acts.
And she smiles when she realizes that her Feral earth-sisters are not gone, but spread out: one making a travelling puppet theatre, one clowning in children’s hospitals. And there are others, countless other feral sisters and brothers, some beloved, some faraway and unknown, some old, some unborn. Their web-strands are like gossamer in sunlight, floating, but still connected, touching new surfaces and creating new configurations; beautiful acts extending gently outwards towards undreamt-of possibilities.
Soliphilia is a new word meaning ‘an all-encompassing love for the whole that manifests in unity and solidarity. A collective and proactive response to the death of nature.’ (Glenn Albrecht, 2010)