Emmanuel Vaughan-LeeGood afternoon everyone. So lovely to be here with you this afternoon. My name is Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, I’m the executive editor of Emergence Magazine and also the curator of this show. I’m delighted to be in conversation this afternoon with some wonderful people, friends, who are going to talk about awe, wonder, and the seeds of reciprocity. There are several themes that we’re exploring in this exhibition: the importance of bearing witness and realizing how very entangled we are with the biosphere; that essentially we are an extension of the ever-changing Earth. And if we make that realization—body, mind, and spirit—then the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we act is going to change. There are two questions we ask within the exhibition overview text as you come into the building, and one of them is: What seeds of reciprocity might take root if we embody this understanding and realize how entangled we are with this great Earth that is our home? So we’re not going to talk too much about loss and destruction this afternoon. We’ve talked a lot about loss and destruction, as we need to. We need to talk about what is unfolding. We need to bear witness to what is unfolding. But we also need to give space for what can emerge from what opens inside of us when we allow ourselves to be present with what is going on all around us, and let that love in, in all its forms. Ben Okri was just here prior to this session and he was speaking about love, and not just a glossy type of love—a multifaceted type of love that knows no bounds; that can break you open and spin you around and spit you out. And when that happens something can shift inside of us and something new can emerge. So that’s what we’re going to speak about this afternoon.
I’m very excited to be in conversation with these incredible artists and activists, writers, singers, filmmakers—a very talented bunch. So I’d love to introduce them to you. To my left is Joycelyn Longdon, who is an environmental justice activist and a PhD student in artificial intelligence for environmental risk. She’s also the founder of Climate in Colour, an online education platform and community dedicated to making climate science and environmental issues more accessible and diverse. And she’s also working on a brilliant new book titled Rerooting: How We Overcome Monoculture Environmentalism, which is scheduled to be published next fall by Penguin Random House. So please keep your eyes out for that.
To her left is my dear friend, who I’ve known for over a decade now, Kalyanee Mam, whose work Lost World is exhibited downstairs—some of you may have seen that by now. Kalyanee is a Cambodian-American filmmaker whose award-winning work is focused on art and advocacy. Her debut documentary feature, A River Changes Course, won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance Film Festival, and the Golden Gate Award for Best Feature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Her other works include the documentary shorts Lost World, which is displayed downstairs, Fight for Areng Valley, Between Earth and Sky, and Cries of Our Ancestors. She’s currently working on two new documentary films: Fire and the Bird’s Nest and Taste of the Land.
And to her left is good friend Sam Lee, who is the subject of a film which premiered here and has been screening all week: The Nightingale’s Song. Sam is a Mercury Prize–winning folk singer, a conservationist, a song collector, the author of The Nightingale, which is available downstairs, and has numerous acclaimed albums, including the latest one, due out very soon, Songdreaming, which I would also ask you to keep an eye out for. He is a founding member of Music Declares Emergency and The Nest Collective, which brings people together to rekindle connections with nature, tradition, and community. Welcome, Sam. Welcome Kalyanee. Welcome Joycelyn. [applause] Thank you. Thank you.
So I want to talk about work that connects to start our conversation. And each of your work explores connection with the Earth, whether that be an exploration of home and homeland, as you do in your work, Kalyanee; Sam using art as activism, connecting people to the nightingales and land through shared song and community; or creating conversation around activism, purpose, and climate futures, Joycelyn. So, I’m wondering if you could each talk a little bit about the importance of centering narratives of connection and community and kinship in the stories you tell and the work that you do and the spaces you open up for people, particularly in the context of the uncertain and changing times we find ourselves in?
Joycelyn LongdonThanks. Yeah, great question. I think what’s interesting about sitting in between two worlds, because I’m sitting in the activist space and also in the academic world, and a lot of my research is working on conservation technology and how we can look at the way that we conserve environments, especially in the tropics, and move them away from a kind of colonial agenda to something that is based in community and based in connection and moving against this sort of separation of humans from the natural world in the solutions that we have to the environmental crisis. And I think that what I’ve learnt from being in community in a place that’s my heritage—I work in Ghana—and working across language, working across experience, working across hierarchies, across cultures, is that within the environmental movement, we have community wrong. And I think that for me—talking about this messy kind of love, not this kind of glossy love—that work in the forest—of becoming very, very entangled with people, their tensions, the tensions of the forest, the tensions of the wildlife within the forest, the tensions of the technology in the forest—gave me an understanding that community is beautiful only because it’s a mirror to show us all of our different ways of being. I think that sometimes we like a kind of pure kind of environmentalism. We like a pure, morality-based environmentalism. And I think what I’ve learned from being in the forest and being with people who live in the forest with each other—you can’t go anywhere because it’s very remote—you have to be in community with the people and the beings around you. And so then it’s more about being than doing. I think that here or in the West, we think about environmentalism as something that we do, and I’ve really started moving away from that and seeing how community is a way of being and how we are with each other and how we are in the world. I think if we moved to that, we could complicate the question of what it means to do conservation or to do environmentalism and change fundamentally not just the external but the internal whilst we’re doing that. I think that’s something I’m trying to practice and trying to communicate a lot more. So I’ll stop there.
EVTo be conservation and to be environmentalism—I think it’s a very distinct difference. [applause] Thank you. [laughter]
Sam LeeI love the power to pass on [the mic]. I’m very pleased I didn’t go first—the terror of going first! Thank you, Joycelyn. I was dwelling on that, like why is going first really hard, and it really helps, in this situation, to have somebody put an orientation point, to hear your perspective. And I know that I have that same confrontation—I think this is going somewhere— same confrontation when I arrive in the woods, that sense of overwhelm, of “oh my god.” It’s like standing in front of you, or standing in front of a forest I haven’t been in for a little while or don’t know. And it’s like, where am I? Who are these beings? What is that reciprocity, what is that connection between us? Do they acknowledge me here? Do I acknowledge them? How do I acknowledge them? And it’s that question of connectivity which is problematic for me. I live for many, many weeks of the year in the woods. That, for me, is the question: how do I, both as an artist and as a human, doing the practice that I do—and my practice is about being the woods; I don’t practice scales on instruments and things like that, it is about listening and actually having that time just to drop in and start to hear the opinions of trees and their intentions—that for me is the starting point: How does one become a better listener? How does one understand what is held within the silence of the woods? That is, for me, one of my great teachers and teachings and places of learning, which I then have to calibrate as an artist living in London, as a musician, as a writer, as someone who is creating activities and activations to broker—to be an agent for—the introduction. How does one facilitate for people who are not in the forest, who are not face-to-face? And how does art work as a place of distillation of both the concept and the essence, the wordless, the unspeakable, the vocabulary-free point of relationship with the natural world. And what is held in a more vibrational, a more ethereal, field that exists—to acknowledge that.
The thing that I find fascinating about being here is that we often talk about art as the great connector, the great inspiration-creator. Being in this building is like being in a seed-bomb, like one of those packets of wildflower meadows that you sprinkle out there and that will be, in time, an extraordinary blossom of the many different expressions held within that packet. And this is, for me, an example of the most important thing about how we create—everybody will come and have a reaction and an inspiration. And as an artist you’re never entirely sure of what it is you’re putting out there, and what the reaction will be, and what people will take away from it. You can be as didactic as you can. Sometimes the less didactic it is, the more you leave it open to interpretation, which is the beauty of music and sound, because it holds itself in so many different parts of people’s bodies, and holds space and connects with the things that people are thinking about. And we are all thinking about these issues right now, particularly as COP is happening and we are seeing headlines that are really pinpointing what the meadow flowers will be in times to come. Everybody, I think, is looking for a sense of hope and inspiration as an artist. For me, it’s about creating worlds that elicit potentiality and a way forward that is beautiful and has love within it and has vibrancy and diversity, but also has humans in it, in greater connection. So, just a little musing, I guess. And I’m going to pass the mic on now. Thank you. [applause]
Kalyanee MamThank you, Sam. And thank you, Joycelyn. I’m so glad I’m last! [laughter] I just enjoy listening to both of you. You reflect so much of how I feel as well, you know, when I’m in the forest and amongst our kin. We are in relationship—everything around us is a mirror of ourselves, our internal selves. And that’s what I would like to speak about. In most of my career as a storyteller, storyweaver, filmmaker—whatever the role is—from my education, I’ve learned to objectify. I’ve learned to look outside of myself for answers. I’ve learned to read books and look up to authority for answers. I’ve learned to go to museums and consume art, consume music, and consume media for answers. I’ve also learned to create media myself by objectifying the experiences of other people. And during the time that I’ve lived with families in Cambodia, who live with the land and in the forest, I’ve learned that this is not how to live, and actually the way of life that is in communion with the kin around us is a way of life that lives in connection with. And so, my journey recently has been not to tell the stories of others, but actually to look within myself, to look at the story of my own family, my own people, my own ancestors, and ask what wisdom lies there.
And my ancestors are not just humans, but nonhumans as well. So I go to the mountains. I go to the forest. I go to the ocean. And I not only look, but I listen, like you say. And I taste, and I breathe, and I take in, and I connect with, and I feel. And I think that what we need to do more to be in kinship and in community is to really feel the place that we are in. Even right now, we’re in a forest. We are! All of you are trees and plants and mushrooms. [laughter] We’re all in a forest together and we’re breathing the same air in this room. Right now, we’re in kinship. But we can only be in kinship if we feel one another, and if we open our hearts to feel, and truly feel the love that exists in this room and in the forest and in the world that we are in. So I feel increasingly, as I become older—maybe not wiser, but just a little bit more experienced—I feel that I read less, I consume less, and I begin to taste more and feel more and listen more, which is what my mom has been doing all her life and has been showing and sharing with us. And now I get to share with all of you.
EVYou spoke about being, not doing [Joycelyn]; and Sam, you spoke about listening; and you also spoke about listening, Kalyanee. And, you know, when we think about what can emerge from a space where we’ve been opened up—it isn’t always a clear path forward and it isn’t one that is always easy. And when you work in community—and you all work in community in different ways: you’re in Ghana, you’re in Cambodia, you’re here in Sussex with humans and nightingales—the story that unfolds there is one that’s multifaceted. I wonder if you could all speak a little bit about the importance of listening and learning to listen, uncomfortably at times, to what comes up, whether from human or more-than-human voices—how to hold that. Because I think that’s a big part of our response: we think of action as a “doing,” but that’s a very masculine, outdated, toxic response in many ways, and part of what is emerging is perhaps another way of returning to a state of being. Being can hold things, many things—different viewpoints, maybe conflicting viewpoints, maybe uncomfortable viewpoints, but it has to start with that space of listening, and also maybe the vulnerability that one has being there in that space. I wonder if you could all speak to that a bit.
JLYeah, I have so many thoughts on this. This is a really great question. I hope I can be coherent. I think I’ll start with what I’ve been taught around how to do my PhD, because this is something that—I am within a computer science department, and computer science is probably one of the least—it doesn’t do things in this way. Everything is sort of planned out and there is a route and all of the knowing—
JLYeah, binary, and the route has to be known. And I think that the work that I’ve been doing has been completely unknown and that things unfold because it’s so based on community and trying to move away from patriarchy and trying to move away from coloniality; which is to say that, of course, I don’t know what people’s engagements are going to be like or what my engagement is going to be like, and I have subjectivity added into that space. So I think that unknowing is something that systems of power do not like. Because without knowing, you cannot control, or you think that you cannot control.
And [there’re] so many ways I’ve been taught to surrender, and that surrender is something that’s really powerful. And I think when we’re talking about environmental action or environmental solutions, it feels very uncomfortable to say, we’re going to surrender, because people interpret surrender as giving up or as inaction. One conversation I had with Bayo Akomolafe was really interesting because we were talking about runaway slaves, and we were talking about how, you know, what if you’re in a situation where you were gonna instigate the running away and you went up to someone and said, “Should we go? Should we leave? Should we run?” And that person said, “Well, we don’t have a map and we don’t have a compass, and maybe we should sit down and make a plan and get all of these things that we don’t know how we’re going to get,” trying to be very in control of that situation. But the Maroons didn’t do that. The Maroons just ran and had the knowledge or the faith that some being—whether that’s God, whether that’s the forest that they ran into—would guide them without the map, without the blueprint. And that is the kind of surrender that trusts that we are also part of the world, that the world will guide us, and not that we have to exert control out of a place of insecurity, out of a place of not knowing. And rather than fighting against the not knowing, seeing that as an opening to learn, as an opening to hear things that we’re not hearing. As Sam’s saying, as you’re saying, when we enter these spaces, there’s a lot that comes through: What are the trees saying? What are the animals saying? What are the people saying? And a lot of people are not being listened to, and there’s a discrepancy with who gets to choose what our blueprint is, who gets to choose what our path is. Who, nonhuman or human, are we not listening to when we fail to surrender, when we fail to just have a period of time to be imbued with something else other than our own kind of imagination? Because our imaginations are limited and they need to be expanded, and I think that the way we do that is through surrendering.
SLI guess maybe the first question I have on this is, what is listening? And I think you’re speaking about more than just how we receive sound vibration. It was wonderful hearing David George Haskell talk about sound being quite a late part of the evolution of species. And it was very interesting that in early eras, actually creating sound was very revealing of your position, your vulnerability; and several hundred million years later, that still rings true. But I think there’s another sort of listening, which is this idea of sensory awareness, which is such a massive term—and I don’t just mean the five senses, because that’s a very kind of modern and limiting division of how we receive and express and read the world around us—there’re many more ways that we do it. The ears are very powerful, but there are other senses that come into play when one is out in nature, and this is part of the work that I do with nightingales. I obsess about this bird, but really what I love about them is that they capitalize upon a space of deep appreciation, of that ability to listen and experience so much further into the world around and deep within oneself and the space that is created in their presence.
But just outside—at night, particularly—is where the listening goes so far beyond the usual realms of where our sensory perception is allowed to exist. You’re talking about imagination confinement and also about how we are sensorily confined in the spaces that we occupy—when do we get to experience horizons as wide as nature can create, and what happens when we confront that? And there’s something about that sense of realizing our entrapment and also how we are able to listen deeper into ourselves—the things and the voices and the ideas and emotions that often aren’t able to gestate into things that really speak forth. And that’s where some of the practices that we have in this land are an inherited tradition—listening, the wider listening. It’s something that you don’t just have as a capability, that’s a kind of birthright. It has to be learned. It has to be taught. I speak a lot about the work we need to do with children to use nature as a classroom, as a playground, a place of experiencing. But we have a very broken legacy in this country of how we are permitted to listen, how we’re permitted to have a deeper connection. And we also have the great privilege of having so many other cultures that we can learn from, still surviving today, still persisting, that hold very ancient wisdoms and practices of nature awareness, particularly in North America, particularly in South America. And we live in a time of accessibility, and teachings that are very available to us and offer some of the real graceful ways that we can start to reimagine. I go back to this word, “reciprocity,” a sense of kinship with the natural world, because we’re learning how to use our ears and our smell, particularly, and our touch. And the work I do with nightingales brings all that into play, because it’s a piece of theater that everyone is permitted to step into. The guests who come out into the forest step into a place of attention to what is beyond our physical realms, and how we connect in. And the darkness is, I find, a wonderful place to initiate and disinhibit the things that we have not been able to listen deeper to, I guess.
KMThank you, Sam. And thank you for mentioning ancient wisdom. And Joycelyn, you talk about surrender, and both of those things remind me of my family. We went through the Khmer Rouge regime, which happened during ’75 to ’79. I was born during that time, and during the Khmer Rouge, we were living under the reign of terror. Over two million people died, either through execution or starvation. And my family and I managed to get to the border of Cambodia and Thailand, and we thought we were in a place of safety at the refugee camp there. And one day the Thai soldiers came and told us to get on a bus, and they told us they were going to take us to the third country where we would be safe. And my father thought, “Oh, we’re going to escape. We’re going to be safe.” And we got on the bus, and my dad thought, “Why don’t we just get rid of our tarp, our pots and pans?” My mom said, “No, don’t do that yet. We don’t know where we’re going.” And instead of turning left—my father could read Thai, as well as Khmer and French and English—he saw that we did not turn left toward Bangkok, but we turned right instead, and the bus, hours later, ended up dropping us off at the foot of Phnum Dângrêk, which is a mountain laden with land mines. And the Thai government knew this—they knew they were taking us to this place. And they told us to get off. And they told us to go back to our country. And my family and I walked through the jungles, through this mountain laden with land mines, and we had no idea what we were doing. Every step we took, took hours, and there were hundreds of other families doing the same. There was hardly any water, nothing to drink. And out of the blue, a man came. He was dressed as a soldier, but he had on this suit—it was beautiful, it was clean—in the jungle, out of nowhere. He had a nice haircut. And he came to our family and he said to my father, “Follow me. I will show you the way.” So we followed him. We surrendered, and he took us to safety. We looked back and he’d disappeared. He was gone. We camped one night with the tarps and the pots and pans that our mom told my dad to keep, and we collected rainwater. We slept under the tarp, even though it was raining. And my sister, she was only five or six years old at the time, wandered off looking for water. And she found the spring that was clean—everywhere else was drenched with blood. And she felt a tap on her shoulder and she looked around, and there was an old woman who said to her, “You know, if you see somebody, somebody taps you on the shoulder and tells you to move away, don’t resist.” And she looked at the grandmother and she said, “Okay, grandmother.” And so when she saw this clearing of water that was clean, my sister wanted to go towards it. And suddenly she felt a tap on her shoulder, and this man said, “Get away, kid. I’m going for this water.” And she remembered the words of the grandmother. The grandmother had disappeared after she told my sister this. So my sister moved aside, and the man began to move towards the clearing with the water, and boom!—he was blown into pieces. So out of nowhere, grandmother appeared. Out of nowhere, the soldier appeared to guide our family to safety. We surrendered to the spirits. We surrendered to our ancestors. We surrendered to the plants that helped give us sustenance and food and the plants that gave us water. Even though we couldn’t find water, there were plants that had roots that we could feed on that gave us liquids, the water that allowed us to survive. And it was through that surrender and through the belief in our ancient wisdom that we were able to survive.
Our ancestors are everywhere. The wisdom is within us. The wisdom is everywhere—in the forest, with the nightingales, in Ghana, in Cambodia, in our ancestors, in our blood. We just have to listen. And like you say, listening is more than just the five senses. It goes beyond that. There are spirits who are guiding us too. And we keep talking about technology. We keep talking about all these things, when actually the answers are right there in front of us. We just really need to listen with an open heart. [applause]
EVSo I want to talk more about surrender. I’m going to abandon this direction—it’s a surrender to the moment. [laughter] But I think it’s a really important point. And you said, Joycelyn, people think of surrender as defeat. But in many spiritual traditions and religions, surrendering is something greater—bowing down, acts of reverence, and realizing that you are very small. I think it’s important to bring up this question of who are we surrendering to at this time? And there are many answers to that question. But in the context of how we relate to the living world around us, perhaps we have to name what we’re trying to surrender to—maybe this is my personal response, not yours—the recognition that we are held within this great being that is our Earth, that is our Mother. And there needs to be perhaps a surrendering to and recognition of that. People always talk about how Earth and humans need to come into balance. I would say, no. I would say the balance that puts human here and Earth here needs to be eschewed. There is a huge continuation of a certain arrogance to say we need to bring it back into balance, maybe the same kind of arrogance that says we can have the same lifestyle but it’s going to be a “green” lifestyle, versus a life that’s grounded in a space of surrender and recognition that we are held within something much greater than us. So I’d love you all to speak a bit more about this, because I think you all work with this in very different ways. Maybe it’s implicit rather than explicit, but it’s there. You’ve got the mic, Sam. You’re gonna go first.
SLSo there’s a lot in there. I’m going to follow along a little bit, because I like that this is going off the beaten path here somewhat. And we are a forest, and I also believe that that sense of spirit can exist beyond just the organic realm, the natural realm; that it exists in places like this, in places of gatherings. Humans are an incredible species for manifests of spirit. And what I experienced, and what I think we all experienced just a moment ago, was in the place of story. And your story was both within your lifetime and also within all lifetimes—we call it in this tradition “the hero’s journey.” Those moments where wisdom comes to us, where our path is offered, where the choices in the path appear, and how we are in a place to make decisions that can have enormous impacts on our lives and lives around us. I appreciate you saying that balance isn’t always a great thing, and nature is a great revealer of that. If you go into any really biologically rich places—Ersin was talking about it the other day, about being in the rainforest—I know when I’m in places of rewilding or primal forest, it’s a mess. Everything is trying to eat something else. You are trying to be eaten. [laughter] That’s balance, that’s creativity—that cannibalism, that decay, where one demise is another species’ survival. It’s a constant movement and fluidity of dependencies. And that is something that is exciting to see, as brutal as it can sometimes seem. How can we find within our own societies a way of honoring that in as sensitive a way and inclusive a way as possible?
Stories, I think, are one of the great keepers of order. We are storymakers. We are storytellers. This is an experience of different stories. And they are what hold us to account, hold us to a place of remembrance, and are a reminder of how to make better choices. There’re skills I’ve learnt as somebody growing up, as a kid, through inherited stories, not dissimilar to yours, from Holocaust survivors of how the forest was a place of sanctuary, a place of resilience as well, and a place for the kind of sabotage of facism that came from the partisans who dwelt in the forest. There are wonderful stories from my ancestors from the time of the First World War and also the pogroms at the turn of the previous century. And those stories, for me, were always there to remind me that the land is a place of refuge, and everything we need is there. And also the teachings of how to procure a place, not of survival—I hate that word “survival”—but of comfort and nourishment. It’s all there, you just have to understand how to listen, how to find that source of water, which plant is saying, “I can help.” That vulnerability, that sense of seeing where the cracks of opportunity are emerging—we have that within us. And stories are the ones that give us trust—and that’s a thing that we don’t have very much. We’ve exiled nature as being a place that we don’t trust, we don’t understand, the plant blindness. But growing that sense of wonder is actually super important.
KMThank you, Sam. I guess I’ll go next. You say trust, and it reminds me of the Khmer word toukchett: touk means “to place, to keep”; and chett means “heart.” It means “heart,” but it also means “mind,” so the mind and the heart are one in Khmer, in my language. So to trust is to place or keep your heart with someone or something—that’s trust. I just find that so beautiful. And I think trust is surrender. And I think trust is also—this is something that I’ve been thinking about and feeling a lot this year—is also synchronicity. Being in sync, being in rhythm with something or someone, is also trust and surrender. My mom always told me the story of how she carried me through the jungles laden with land mines, but I learned recently how she did it. And this is when you came over to our house in Stockton, [Emmanuel]. She told me she wrapped a krama around her like this, and then she carried me close to her. And my friend Fran, in the back there, has been carrying Leo, her baby of three-and-a-half months, like this, the same way—close to her heart. And we’ve been going all over London together, and Leo has been the quietest baby. I mean he is simply the most sweetest child, and the reason is because he’s close to Fran’s heart. And I was able to feel my mother’s heartbeat, even though we were walking through jungles laden with land mines. I didn’t cry, I didn’t stir, I didn’t move, I didn’t fuss, because I could feel her heart and my heartbeat was in sync with hers. And what I learned later on, researching on the internet, was that babies are in sync with their mother’s heartbeat in the womb. And even outside the womb, the babies can be in sync with their mothers for three months or more. And partners who are together for life—as they get older, their heartbeats start to synchronize. I was just like “wow, that’s amazing,” you know, how we can be in sync with one another. And I see that in nature: the murmurations, the birds flying in sync with each other, or the herds of gazelle or animals working in synchronicity—ants! And I think about us. How do we surrender? How do we trust in our ancient wisdom, in ourselves, and in one another enough to walk this life together? And we can do it. We just need to practice holding each other and listening to each other’s heartbeat.
JLThank you. I’ve got the experience of going last, so I’ve been listening really intently to what you’ve both been saying. It’s been really lovely, and I think what I’ve been thinking whilst you’ve been speaking is how, back to your question around surrender being perceived as an inaction, and I think that is an action, because surrender is moving away from one thing and towards something else. And, again, talking about forests—we all have a kind of connection to forests in one way or another—but thinking about the forest as a place of refuge and thinking about an enslaved person running away into the forest, the forest that’s unknown, and moving away from pain and moving away from suffering, maybe to some more suffering, you know. Maybe you do stumble across a poisoned mushroom, maybe you do stumble across a carcass being eaten alive, but you also come across beauty and joy. And I think that that’s what a complicated wonder the living world is—not seeing the natural world as this kind of passive being that is just supposed to be in service to our need for beauty, but more openly understanding the unknown and the unknowing, and then the learning that comes with that unknowing. And I think that for me, that’s a creative space, that’s a space of generation. I think that the space that we’re in now, which doesn’t want to surrender, is a space of stagnation, because we are not open to learning. We are not open to experience, or to seeing, what is hidden. I think that surrender is also uncovering. It’s kind of moving away from what it is that we know towards what it is that we don’t know. And in all of its complexity, that is still beautiful. There are lessons to be learned from that. I think that it doesn’t just have to be done in a forest far away. I think that we must do this as a practice, and I think that goes back, again, to being rather than doing. How do we practice surrender daily in big ways and in small ways? And the more that we surrender, the more that we become educated by the world around us. And I think that that, for me, is what it feels like to be human. I think when I feel most human is when I’m most curious. It’s when I’m the most open to being inspired and asking questions and listening and watching and just going, Oh, what is going on there? How does that work? Or just knowing that there are intelligences much broader and faster and more intricate than our own, and trying to kind of blend into that—I describe it as like trying to just become an amoeba, like just to become nothing but everything at the same time. I don’t know what that looks like exactly, but just trying to be outside of the body or outside of our physical or emotional or mental constraints and to see it as an opportunity for learning.
EVSo two points that are maybe too big to bunch together, but I’m gonna do it anyway, because that’s what I’ve been hearing in your last round of sharing here, are: The cultivation of the inner senses. You spoke about outer forms of listening—you know, we hear with our ears, we see with our eyes, we touch with our hands, we smell. But what about the inner senses—the cultivation of the heart, which is, in my own spiritual path of Sufism, given a tremendous emphasis—that the external senses are one experience, one aspect, of what the human being is capable of, but the inner cultivation of the heart—so, you see with the heart, you hear with the heart, taste with the heart, everything ultimately in Sufism comes back to the heart, to love—it’s not something that’s just for Sufis. It’s something that we all, I think, need to strive to realize: that there is an important cultivation of the inner senses which was part of the education that was offered for millennia. Not so much book learning, but the cultivation of the inner senses; and the value of the inner senses are on par with the outer. So that’s one part of the question, because I’d like to hear you all speak to that.
And then the other, I guess, is how that relates to this dichotomy of action versus inaction that is often present in the environmental space—that taking refuge, for instance, and developing your inner senses is considered selfish at a time when we all need to be out there in the picket lines, protesting, chaining ourselves, stopping this incredible extractive industry that is the modern capitalist project. Now I think that we all need to be doing things in an external capacity, but I’m a huge believer of what can happen through inner cultivation, which is viewed as inaction. There’re a lot of things that can be put in that box—prayer, for instance, ceremony, silence, song. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
JLYeah, I think we talked about this a little bit earlier in the year.
EVFor your book.
JLYeah, and I think that one of the issues that we face around the environmental movement is that of replicating the systems of oppression that we’re trying to eradicate. Often in movements there’s urgency, there’s fear. And when there is fear and trauma, it feels like the best thing to do is to do. Let’s just do something. And we do need to do something, but, again, I think that to be fully in our humanity is to see that the environmental crises, the climate crises, are not just external crises. They’re not just crises of carbon and not just crises of extraction, because when we look into our history, when we look into our wisdom, we can see where these systems of extraction, systems of exploitation, have come from. And they have been human, emotional, bodily drivers that have caused these ways of being, these systems of extraction. And so, if we continue to act externally more than we connect internally (and that can still be done in community and I think it must be done in community), but if we do not give time to grieve, if we do not give time to—I was speaking with a friend earlier about screaming and about crying and about release and about connecting to the hearts of each other and the hearts of the living world—then what is the world that we create? How different will that be? And again, is it going to be the same world, but greener? And is that what we’re all sacrificing so much for? Is that sacrifice necessary to create this world but greener, or is there an opportunity to make something much more beautiful, much more just, much more inspiring? And I think that, in part, that has to have a balance between the external and the internal. We have to radicalize what’s going on externally but also what’s going on internally, and what the systems that we live by are. Because it’s not only new environmental technology, not only new energy systems that we have to create, but we need to create new cultural systems, new systems of belonging, new systems of connection. And those are also infrastructure—wind turbines and solar panels and roads. Yeah, they’re important infrastructure, but our cultural infrastructure, our care infrastructure, is equally as important, and is the sort of bottom of the iceberg underneath that we all ignore. And so if those crumble, the whole thing crumbles. If our societal infrastructure crumbles, we have nothing to be uplifted by and to stand by. So at the same time we’re radically changing the external, we need to be creating the foundations and that stable base so that whatever the new world looks like—and there’ll be many new worlds in many places all at the same time—it is built on love and built on something radically different from the way that our community and our societies are organized now. So I think those two things are actually one and the same. It’s not two questions, it’s the same, because with the love [you see] that there cannot be inaction for honoring love, for honoring our hearts. That is part of the action that needs to be taken. And I think we need to move away from binaries, because, as you’re saying, the ecosystem is messy, super messy. And in that messy lies the beauty, and I think I want to stay in the messy more often than not. [applause]
KMHmm. I keep returning to my mother. And I keep returning to the families that I lived with in Cambodia for many years, you know, living with them, learning about their way of life, and how they just live with the land and the forest and the rivers. And we didn’t grow up with that in Stockton, California. It was a very urban space. I had nowhere to go, to run to, no forest to go to. I only had my mother, who shared food with us that gave us a taste of our homeland. But what I learned living with the families was that they were reflecting to me what Ma was sharing with me, what she was trying so hard to teach us—not really so hard, she just did it naturally. When I was filming, there was no moment of grandeur, no like big plot in the films I was making. It was always about household chores, you know. Every time I held up the camera I would be filming the mothers cooking, children playing, them fishing in the river, foraging for mushrooms, us having a meal together and sharing stories at meal time, laughing, joking around, playing, having fun. So you talk about the inner, cultivating that inner wisdom, the inner spirit, and I think that is it—that’s what I learned. Through those household chores—washing dishes, washing clothes, cooking, gathering, foraging, nurturing the family and the community—through those daily acts, you didn’t have to think about healing. You didn’t have to think about cultivating your inner spirit, or having a daily practice, or praying. Everything you did was a prayer. And that’s what my mother did, you know. She cooked, she cleaned, she cared for us, and that was her daily prayer. And I wonder, I wonder, wonder, wonder if maybe we have gone so far that we have forgotten our daily prayers, you know, those daily household chores that the machines are doing for us. We just drop off our laundry and magically they’re clean, or put our dishes in the dishwasher and then they come out clean. Maybe we don’t even have time to be with our children because we are working so hard. I wonder if maybe the answer is—or maybe there’s no answer, but what I’ve seen in my life is that I was focusing, putting attention, my camera, on these things that I felt were really important. I had no idea why, but I realized later on that I was really honoring my mother when I did this. And maybe we need to honor our mothers, either our mother or maternal mother, our grandmothers, or maybe our Mother Earth by touching her, holding her, caring for her. And that could be our prayer.
SLWow, I’m feeling very emotional right now. I don’t know about you guys. Thank you. It comes in the privilege we have of all this time that has been given to us, through everything you’re saying, and actually what have we lost in ways of connection of tradition, of doing as has been done. For me, what I feel luckiest about, more than anything else, is that I have song—I have songs around me, and that is my own personal form of prayer, sharing a song that has been sung by mothers before, and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, and goes back. And they carry within them a remembrance of all that grief and all that joy and everything that we have to value. And also a reminder that what we are going through in this dawning of a new era of climate change, of societal- (whatever the word might be)—I have to choose my words carefully—of the many futures that you speak about, in many ways this is not the first time humans have experienced this. And I’m reminded of the wonderful quote from Bertolt Brecht: Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing. We will be singing. About the dark times. And song is what holds me in a place of sacredness, and rebellion as well.
Just to re-quote what you’re saying, Joycelyn, about the shutdown, the numbing—that for me is the thing that I am terrified of more than anything. I see the demise, I see the land suffer, I see our community suffer. And the thing that I fear most of all is that I don’t feel it anymore. And in those spaces where one wants to shut down, one wants to step away and not engage, I sing my songs. The songs that I sing, our songs—be they ancient folk songs or be they songs that are being released right now that are speaking about the human condition and the world condition—are what keep me standing upright, with eyes open and heart open as well. They’re not the only way that we do it, but they are, for me, the one that speaks deepest to my heart and to many people’s. And that’s my therapy. It’s my balm. It’s my meditation. And may the songs be there that tell the stories that are hardest to tell.
EVHold on to that mic for a second, Sam, because you know what I’m gonna ask you next. I think everybody here knows what I’m going to ask you next, which is, you’ve opened a door, now you must walk through it, my friend. [laughter and applause]
SLThe funny thing is that we were doing a conversation on Sunday and somebody in the audience said, “Sam, could you sing a song?” And you looked at me and were like, “No, no, no, no, sorry. Move on, next question.”
EVI know you pretty well by now, and I think there’s a different space that you were in on Sunday.
SLYeah, thank you. I’m gonna go into a place of vulnerability and sing a song that I haven’t really ever sung before that feels very—it’s been playing around in me with this exhibition, because there are so many forests in here. And this is a song called— what’s it called? [laughter] It comes from Hertfordshire, and I’ll just very briefly say a bit about the background. It’s a song, much of which I’ve written out of a very, very ancient folk song called “The Tree of Life,” or it’s called “The Leaves of Life.” It comes from an old gypsy singer called May Bradley. And it comes from an apocryphal Christian telling of Mary going to Calgary to see her son on the criss-cross tree, as it was known. And there was something about the line of the seven virgins that accompany her that called to me, in the prophecy, the creed, the Iroquois prophecy of children’s fire, the seven generations—some say the seven generations to come, some say the seven generations that have also been—that we must call into consideration when making choices, decisions, and seeking counsel about what we do. So that number seven felt very important. This is taking that song and imagining the seven generations of children appearing, who are yet to appear, at the Tree of Life, which is broken and wounded and weeping, and the questions they have of how we have come to the place that we are. So this is “The Leaves of Life.”
It’s under the leaves, and the leaves of life
There comes children seven,
And it’s one by one they’ll come to ask,
What have we done to heaven?
And where are the leaves, the leaves of life,
Who gave us protection?
Who gave root and bough to raise our vows?
Why has she been forsaken?
Oh mother dear, you’re a weeping tree
And your weeping, it does disarm
We’ve been entranced to a scarcity dance
Well awayed by false idolatries
Children, go where I send thee
How can you send thee
Far from the leaves of life
To tend to our dear mother’s grace
And be scribe to our father’s rage
Bright morning star arising
Bright morning star arising
Bright morning star arising
Day is breaking in my soul
EVAs much as I want this conversation to go on, I think it should end there because that was a beautiful space to end our conversation on. I’m really, really grateful for what just happened here, because it wasn’t what I thought was going to happen. And I’m very touched by all of you. Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Sam, for singing. And for being here, Kalyanee, thank you so much, and for your work downstairs. Joycelyn, thank you so much. It’s been a real privilege.