Announcing the forthcoming publication of ARCHIPELAGO Issue One, available Summer 2007
ARCHIPELAGO is to be a literary magazine in the ordinary sense, in that it will contain writings in non-fictional prose, and verse. Extraordinary will be its preoccupations with landscape, with documentary and remembrance, with wilderness and wet, with natural and cultural histories, with language and languages, with the littoral and vestigial, the geological, and topographical, with climates, in terms of both meteorology, ecology and environment; and all these things as metaphor, liminal and subliminal, at the margins, in the unnameable constellation of islands on the Eastern Atlantic coast, known variously in other millennia as Britain, Great Britain, Britain and Ireland etc; even, too, too readily, the United Kingdom (including the North of partitioned Ireland), though no such thing ever existed, other than in extremis during wartime, but in the letter. But while the unnameable archipelago is its subject, its vision is by implication global, and its concerns with the state of the planet could not be more of the hour.
The first issue features contributions by: Paul Abbott, Norman Ackroyd, John Beatty, Julian Bell, Roger Deakin, Greg Delanty, Seamus Heaney, Mick Imlah, Nicolas Jacobs, Andrew Kahn, Michael Longley, Robert Macfarlane, Derek Mahon, Osip Mandelshtam, Andrew McNeillie, Gail McNeillie, David Nash, Bernard O’Donoghue, Angharad Price and Mark Williams. For notes on contributors click here.
The first issue of ARCHIPELAGO was successfully launched as part of the Passionate Natures conference held at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 22-24 June 2007.
Go wild in the countryRobert Macfarlane heralds the arrival of a new journal of nature-minded art and writing
Saturday July 14, 2007
Archipelago: (k p l g), def. 1 “Any sea or sheet of water, studded with many isles.” We live, though this is easily forgotten, on an island group of exceptional intricacy. Together, the territories conventionally called England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales comprise over 5,500 islands, studding and separating the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. And between them, the languages of this archipelago muster dozens of words for “island”, depending on size, profile, and water-context (fresh or salt; running or still; marine, estuarine or riverine). Listed, these words form a poem of paraphones: skerrie, skellig, sgeir, eyot, eilean, islet, inis, ynys, inch, isle, ailsa, ellan, oilean.
Easily forgotten, because so many forces now warp us away from direct experience of the land on which we live. Urbanisation, habits of travel, modern farming practices, footloose industries, the internet – more and more people are being prised from a relationship with the physical aspects of this archipelago: its scores of rock types, its capricious weathers, its tides, seasons, birds, plants and creatures, its hundreds of rivers, its thousands of peaks.
Recently, however, there has been a surge of interest in just these elemental qualities to the land. Signs of the surge are visible across the cultural spectrum. They are there in popular forms: the ongoing success of the TV programme Coast, for instance, or the huge viewing figures achieved by Springwatch and Autumnwatch. And there, too, in the shifting image-repertoire of British and Irish tourism. This year, 10 broadsheet features have appeared recommending ways and places to “go wild in the British Isles”. Gone is the cliché of a domestic holiday as a mildewed caravan in a damp field. Instead, a new excitement is emerging at the adventures that are to be had in the moors, forests, high hills, rivers and edgelands of these islands.
Increasing numbers of artists – poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, painters, photographers and sculptors – are also finding inspiration in the patterns and plays of geology, meteorology and natural history. Taking only the example of photography, there is David Parker, who travels the coasts of Britain and Ireland, making massive-format, long-exposure sepia photographs of sea-stacks: the great rocks that wave action has eroded into monolith, spire or arch. His remarkable images record the eeriness of these structures, looming out of coppery seas or soft mists, and often thinner at their bases than their summits – such that they seem top-heavy, impervious to gravity, supernaturally weightless. Then there is Michael Marten, a photographer who has become fascinated by the lost tidal land – amphibious, unowned – that exists between the low-water mark and the high-water mark, and who takes pairs of images from precisely the same position (the positions of the tripod’s feet marked with pebbles and sticks) at high and low tide. There is Harry Cory Wright, who last year made a Defoeian “Journey Through the British Isles”, beginning in Shetland at the spring equinox, and then travelling south, recording the landscapes he encountered on a large-format Gandolfi-plate camera. Other photographers working in a more super-real mode include Joe Cornish, Philip Fenton and Rod Edwards.
It can be hard to know what to call this new body of work. “Landscape art” is blandly tepid. “Nature writing” is sapless and text-specific. “Pastoral” summons swains and greenswards. “Environmental” has become gummed by politics. Perhaps the adjective “archipelagic” might serve, catching as it does at imaginings that are chthonic, marine, elemental and felt.
Last month saw the appearance of a new journal called Archipelago, with which I have been involved. It was conceived of and is edited by the poet Andrew McNeillie, and its original aims were to provide a home for the new archipelagic art, and to inspire and embody a return to the land – and seascapes – of these islands. It is impressively rangy in terms of form (reportage, criticism, poetry, photographs and artwork) and language (English, Welsh, Gaelic, Russian and Anglo-Saxon). Established artists presenting new material include Seamus Heaney, Roger Deakin, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Bernard O’Donoghue, the painter Norman Ackroyd, the artist Julian Bell, the sculptor David Nash, and the photographer John Beatty. The issue also carries the work of emerging young writers, among them the Welsh novelist Angharad Price, and the Oxford poet Paul Abbott.
So much nature-minded art suffers from the tonal sins of polemicism, piety or plangency. Too often, one hears the shrill righteousness of the preacher, the hushed tones of the votary, or the elegist’s mournful whinny. But none of these is audible here. Archipelago prefers a tone that is praiseful and attentive, content to acknowledge both the mystery of placehood and the strangeness of material fact. The journal is, too, a beautifully made thing: book-size, heavy in the hand, rough to the touch, and with an arresting woodcut aesthetic of black and white, gouge and stipple. Craft has gone into its making, and craft is celebrated by it.
A tradition of archipelagic writing goes as far back as the Celtic peregrini of the sixth to 10th centuries AD: the monks, solitaries and pilgrims who travelled west to live on the remote littorals of Britain and Ireland, and who left behind them a literature that is devotedly alert to place. The nameless monk, responsible for drystone walling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, who stopped his work to write a poem recording his delight at standing on a “clear headland”, looking over the “smooth strand”, to the “calm sea”, and hearing the calls of the “wondrous birds”. Or the 10th-century copyist, working in an island monastery, who paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text: “Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.” The margins of the island? The margins of the page? The one fades into the other.
In the centuries since the peregrini, the archipelagic imagination has gone through many ebbs and surges. At present it is, unmistakably, surging. We do not have to look far to explain this. Menace and anxiety have always stimulated cultural production, and loss has always stimulated desire. Currently, global warming and en-vironmental damage are threatening these islands – and the world – with change more swift and serious than anything since the Pleistocene. As McNeillie’s editorial concludes, while the unnameable archipelago is the journal’s subject, “its vision is by implication global, and its concerns with the state of the planet could not be more of the hour.”
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