Engage with Nature-Based Solutions

Erin Robinsong & Merlin Sheldrake: Return Address

Poet Erin Robinsong and biologist Merlin Sheldrake work at the intersections of science and art. Erin’s book Wet Dream is “an expansive, erotic, and enlivening book [of poems] of ecological thinking.” Merlin’s Entangled Life won multiple awards and, according to New Scientist, is “an eye-opening exploration of [the] mysterious taxonomic kingdom” of mushrooms.

Photo courtesy of Darshan Stevens.

Working together for the Engage with Nature-Based Solutions commission, Erin and Merlin explored the possibility of direct address in their project.

“We ask what happens when we address the world directly, rather than speaking solely about the world. What channels of perception and communication open up when we speak to or with someone rather than about them? Art – as a field of experiment, play and possibility – is an ideal place to ask qualitative questions about the possibilities of inter-species communication and relation that may be difficult or taboo in the modern sciences. Qualitative (rather than quantitative) literacy is key to responding to intersecting climate and biodiversity crises: we increasingly need ways to perceive and care for others. In this project, we explore ways of developing inter-species and inter-kingdom perception, literacy, and communication skills.”

The Artwork

As part of their work, Erin and Merlin wrote a collection of poems addressed to the ocean, air, plants, rocks, and other creatures. 

“Life is a story of wild intimacies and relationships. Being is always being with. And being with requires an ability to communicate. Without an ability to communicate no creature could coordinate togetherness.”

The Workshop

Erin and Merlin held a workshop in August 2023 on Cortes Island, BC, with 30 people in attendance, including scientists and artists, young and elderly, visitors and islanders.

Erin first spoke about direct address; Merlin then gave a short talk on symbiosis and communication in the living world – further setting the biological context for the workshop – namely that we live in a communicative commons, and that the complex relations that make up ecology are only possible because of vast tangles of communication within and between species and kingdoms of life. 

Participants were invited to spend time in open attention to the beings around them, to notice what they apprehended, and who had spoken to them, and to gather notes and impressions in a notebook. Prompts to encourage direct address included speaking in the second person, paying a compliment, asking a question, or writing using impressionistic language. From these beginnings, participants were invited to craft an address, a poem, or a letter to the being they noticed, and read it aloud to them. The workshop ended with a discussion and a collective choral sounding offered to the place (Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation) and an invitation to share the produced pieces.

Resulting Resources

Erin and Merlin adapted their workshop to serve as curriculum for the Cortes Island Academy, an alternative high school program that provides 20 credits of experimental, experienctial, place-based learning over one semester. Children attend from Cortes and across BC and work alongside projects such as the Hakai Institute and the Mother Tree Project. Download Erin and Merlin’s Return Address workshop exercise.

Their chapbook Return Address, is a 32-page engagement with the world around them. It was printed in the UK. It will also be featured along with a broadsheet in a February-March 2024 exhibition: Living and Learning with Climate Changee at UVic’s McPherson Library. Download the Return Address chapbook.

All images other than the first image courtesy of Bill Weaver.

#various landscapes
#ecosystem connectivity