Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures: A Report from our Being Human Festival 2021 Event

Thank you to so many of you who joined us for our Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures event! We are delighted to share a report on this event by Fantasy MLitt graduate and Social Media Officer of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, Madalena Daleziou. Madalena tweets at @LBooklott.

Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures was a series of mini-presentations, fondly nicknamed “fantasy tapas,” focusing on how the fantastic – from taproot texts to modern science fiction – can help us reconsider our relationship with the natural world and non-human others. The event was part of Being Human, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and was presented as part of The Dear Green Bothy series, a collaborative cultural programme from the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts, with events and activities that, in their own words, demonstrate “the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.”

With the problem of climate change more pressing than ever before, fantasy literature inevitably reflects the current environmental concerns. Fantasy, as a highly imaginative genre, has traditionally helped us establish connections and think of our relationship with the natural and cultural world in new ways. The fantastic as “serious play” can help us explore solutions to present dilemmas and imagine different futures. In short, it is “a good way to think.”

The evening started with opening remarks by Dr Laura Martin, Core Team member of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, who co-hosted the event together with Dr Lizanne Henderson. Martin began with a poignant quote by writer and storyteller Martin Shaw: “The business of stories is not enchantment. The business of stories is not escape. The business of stories is waking up.” Beyond their entertainment value, stories of magic and transformation have historically helped humans better understand and relate to the world about them. Moreover, tales about supernatural beings and anything that we consider impossible have often been used as a means for social commentary—a function that is now more relevant than ever.

The event was structured as a series of very short presentations of some of the work being done by members of the Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. Martin’ introduction succinctly concluded with a quote by author Ursula K. LeGuin: “the exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

This quote proved particularly relevant with regards to the first panel, titled Fantasy, Ecology, and Children’s Literature. Recent fantasy PhD completer Heidi Lawrence joined us from Utah, US, where the problem of climate change has often been politicised. Even as more people acknowledge climate change as real and pressing, there are still many barriers, psychological, socioeconomic, and others, that must be overcome to productively discussing ecology. Lawrence’s presentation focused on the potential or children’s literature to overcome these barriers, being non-threatening and widely accessible. Madeleine D’ Engle’s books, such as A Ring of Endless Light, for instance—written before discussions about the environment became so pressing and constant—present the possibility of true care for the natural world in digestible ways, suggesting that an analysis of D’ Engle’s works and other children’s books through the lenses of eco-psychology and eco-therapy can prove enriching and educating.

Dr Maureen Farrell, Senior Lecturer in Culture, Literacies, Inclusion & Pedagogy at the University of Glasgow, presented on Climate Change and Sustainability in picturebooks. Farrell similarly focused on the potential of children’s books to “raise awareness in non-threatening ways.” Her presentation provided an overview of works such as David J. Smith’s If the World Were a Village, Grahame Baker Smith’s The Rhythm of the Rain, Suse Moore’s Max Power and the Bagpipes, Dyan Sheldon’s The Wales Song, John Burningham’s Whadayamean, and Debi Gliori’s The Trouble with Dragons, all of which offer interesting insights about the environment, presented in palatable ways both children and adults can benefit from.

Gina Lyle, PhD student in Scottish Literature, moved the discussion to books aimed at older children and teenagers, stressing the importance of location and space in facilitating discussions about climate change. Lyle’s presentation focused on the Exodus trilogy by Julie Bretagna, which offers a powerful comment on global warming. Following the end of COP26, the novels’ image of a drowned Glasgow due to rising sea levels as a result of global warming is as relevant as it is alarming. Imagining known locations as ruined by climate change makes the concept of global warming less abstract. “Imagination,” Lyle concluded, “is a very powerful tool to craft our futures.” If fantasy allows us to imagine grim futures like the one presented in Exodus, it can also help us think of, and work towards, the futures we would prefer. 

Continuing the discussion on YA literature and climate change, fantasy PhD student Grace Worm addressed the politicisation of climate change in the US. YA literature has often attempted to bridge the gap between the control of information by adults, and children’s wish to not only be entertained, but also learn about the state of the world and what they can do about it. While children’s and YA fantasy is often acceptable to adults due to being deemed unreal, literature has the very real potential to help young adults process the climate disaster they must engage with. Tamora Piece’s Wolfspeaker was mentioned as an example of such a YA novel that criticises anthropocentric narratives and emphasises the need for change. Young adults can no longer be shielded from climate change, but fantasy allows them to imagine a new world and engage with their own in new ways.

The second panel focused on Renewal and Transformation in Traditional and Pre-Modern Supernatural Narratives. Dr Lizanne Henderson, Senior Lecturer in History at the Dumfries campus of the University of Glasgow, opened the panel with a discussion of witch hunts and the cultural history of animals. But how do witches relate to environmental concerns? As Henderson pointed out, climate change sometimes referred to as “Little Ice Age” devastated Europe at the time during which witch trials took place. This was partly associated to the popular perceptions of witches as controllers of nature, as well as anti-nature. Moreover, witches were thought to cross boundaries between human and non-human through shapeshifting. The discussion thus shifted to the possibility of a “supernatural ecology” through a consideration of animals in folklore. In many cases, animals have been used as symbols or as the embodiment of ideas, rather than for their own sake. Still, many animals in folklore are depicted as sharing kinship with humans through transformation, and their presence or absence from fantastic works can indicate stability, or lack thereof. 

In the next presentation, Azalea Ahmad-Kushairi, PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, introduced the Garuda as Myth and Symbol of the Malay world. The presentation began with an introduction of the Malay world as “a cultural and linguistic group the embodies the Malay language and characteristics.” The Garuda, a prominent figure in the Malay World, is often presented as a golden-winged bird with human heads, or as a human torso with a bird head. This anthropomorphic creature symbolises both a connection to and a disconnection from nature; Garudas are so strong as to be able to defy the natural world, and potentially care for humans, while they simultaneously represent life and death. During the Islamic era, the Garuda was not swiped out but assimilated in the faith, showing the significance of imagining possibilities of a harmonious coexistence between human and non-human entities.

Next, Dr Laura Martin presented on Mother Holle, a well-known female figure from Grimm’s fairy tales. The tale of Mother Holle might initially be read as a straightforward tale in which a lazy girl is punished, and a good girl is rewarded. Yet, a closer analysis suggests that Holle is much more interesting and layered than initially suspected. Her association with fertility, and with spinning— tasks traditionally associated with women— renders her a goddess for women and girls. The ability to spin in that context should not, however, be read as a task for “good girls,” given that it used to be a necessary, often life-saving occupation. Martin talked about Holle’s association with divine figures linked with both life and death. Considering the above, the well-known fairy tale can be read as the story of a girl who lives up to the task assigned to her by a powerful woman, rendering this a story of “humility, reverence and willingness to take responsibility for oneself with reference to a powerful feminine figure” inviting us to consider our own tasks and responsibility to the ecosystem”—which has traditionally been associated with feminine figures including but not limited to the goddess Gaia.

Finally, Dr Geraldine Parsons, Senior Lecturer at the Celtic & Gaelic department at the University of Glasgow, gave an insightful review of natural circles in what is considered by many as “the greatest of Irish poems.” The poem, known to scholars by its opening line “A[i]thbe damsai bes mara”, or “Ebb-tide to me in the manner of [the] sea”, utilises amble natural imagery but is still anthropocentric, as it does not move away from the speaker, an elderly woman, presumably a nun, who reminisces a worldly youth. In the poem, rejuvenation is not available to the aged speaker, but only to the natural environment she is describing. Old age is compared to a tide, which is, however, irreversible. In this time of climate crisis, the poem is a stark reminder than nature, too, is no longer as renewable as its verses present it to be. The third stanza, starting with the phrase “it is riches you love, not people,” is particularly relevant to the current times.

The last panel focused on Transforming the Earth: Techno-Utopian Fantasies. Oliver Langmead introduced the concept of Terraforming, defined by Chris Pak as “the idea of engineering new worlds for human habitation.” This idea of making inhabitable planets earth-like is present in many SF books, as well as other media. Terraforming is a particular popular concept in discussions about Mars. While this practice might not seem to be an immediate possibility outside the realm of SF, it is still relevant in the discussion of climate catastrophe. As Langmead explained this type of engineering might be paralleled to humanity’s treatment of the earth itself. Similarly to the ways humans would alter another planet, such as Mars, they have accidentally modified Earth in ways that could make it uninhabitable in the future.

The panels were followed by a fifteen-minute discussion, and a Q&A with the audience. After a short break, the evening concluded with an interactive creative writing section by authors Ruth E.J. Booth, and Oliver K. Langmead.

At a time of climate crisis with many world leaders failing to rise to the occasion, Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures was revolutionary to attend. The diverse ecological texts we were introduced to highlight the increased social responsibility of fantasy, as well as its potential to explore better structures, and help us rethink our relationship with the world and our engagement with environmental distress. At a moment when COP26 is accused of being inadequate and disappointing, fantasy can provide hope, proving that it is, indeed, a good way to think.

Madalena Daleziou

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

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