Two writers stand out for me from the Atlantic Islands Festival as significant pointers for the way forward for geopoetics. These are Norman Bissell, whose book Slate, Sea and Sky formed the basis for Mark Sheridan’s Atlantic Island Suite, and Jamie Whittle, an environmental lawyer who wrote about all aspects of the Findhorn in his book White River, an account of a canoeing trip he took up and down the full length of the River.
It has to be said that Kenneth White is a hard model to follow. His stripped to the bone simplicity and precision can sometimes lead, in lesser hands, to some very impoverished and flat writing, lacking his driving energy and wit – and let’s be fair, even Kenneth White doesn’t get away with it all the time! There’s a temptation, too, to go for buzz-words and motifs (like herons) without establishing an equal context to that of White’s mountainous learning. I don’t think either of these writers can be said to have escaped entirely from these temptations.
But on the plus side, there is no sense of authorial self-obtrusion in these books. Places, animals, the challenges of rough country and wild weather, are allowed to speak for themselves. And they have both tapped in, at a profound level, to what I perceive to be the essence of the geopoetic vision.Their art, work and personal philosophy are indeed grounded in an open-eyed and intelligent awareness of what it means to live on the planet earth. And they both include what most of us felt to be the missing dimensions – a sense of locality and community.
It is not the earth as a concept or even as an experience that shapes Norman Bissell’s poetry, it is the island of Luing in particular, and its people, past, present and future; he knows it in a way we are never confident that Kenneth White knows anywhere. It is not only the wild landscape that inspires and challenges Jamie Whittle, it is all the landscape and all the communities – fish, forest, farmers, grouse, walkers and canoeists – who live within it.
Both books bring together a wide range of knowledge and experience. Norman Bissell applies ambitious artistic practice and intellectual rigour to what might otherwise be the escapist idyll or the mundane backwater of island living. Jamie Whittle combines his legal training with sport, knowledge of the lives of indigenous communities and an informed passion for Scotland’s natural heritage. Neither is looking to the past for nostalgic solutions, and neither indulges in preaching or tub-thumping. They add what I need to feel comfortable with geopoetics – warmth and humanity – a sense of involvement that might lead in due time,to wise and compassionate action.