Rock art for Rewilding

We’re experiencing a change in our values. We’re becoming more acutely aware of the importance and value of biodiversity and sustainability. Self-sustaining ecosystems with high biodiversity are recognised now as an important feature of our landscapes. This shift in what we value is a vital part of the equation because we tend to create more of what we value. Art can play an important role in shaping and amplifying our value systems. Art can tap into and spread these feelings value, and then life imitates art. This is an example of how culture and nature are connected.

While now we know and feel that the world would be better if we restored ecosystems to high function with more biodiversity and sustainability, at the same time many people have a cultural resistance to the thought of changing the nature of parts of the countryside on their doorstep, even if that countryside has become a degraded, monocrop desert. They fear of a loss of cultural heritage, and so when it comes to actually making the changes, they suddenly get cold feet and worry that allowing a few wilded spaces in their local area would be somehow erode the cultural richness embedded in the familiar countryside. Art is needed to fill the gap, allowing people to see that culture remains very much a part of the picture.

This is where I think the cave painter culture is so valuable. We have within our human heritage a culture – or collection of cultures – that fit into a wilded world, cultures where people were happy to be one with nature. That’s why I’m looking to pick up the thread of this ancient tradition. For tens of thousands of years the rock art traditions were passed on from generation to generation. Then the shock onset of the Younger Dryas mini-ice age seems to have brought about its end in many parts of the world. But it’s only an end if we choose to frame it that way. I prefer to see it as just a lacuna, a temporary hiatus. We can pick up where we left off. It was a rich and vibrant tradition and the people who passed it on weren’t sub-human cavemen; they were anatomically modern humans, like us. Like the worlds of other indigenous people, the world of the cave painters had value and it has value still and it deserves to be remembered. It was really that culture that was lost, and we, the descendants of the cave painters, are the ones who are impoverished by the loss.

While some of us might have trouble with the idea that rock art directly increases the abundance of nature through some kind of metaphysical action or sympathetic magic that the cave painters may have believed in, we are more comfortable with the idea that art can change attitudes and that changed attitudes can lead to changed behaviours and decisions. Art can be an expression of the desire for a wilded world, and it can be, in a more modern sense, an artistic statement, and perhaps in some small way, it can contribute to a change of attitude to one where we’re more comfortable with wilding our world, and feeling that culture can be a part of nature. As an expression of care and labour of love, works of art can be repositories of value, indicating what we treasure and showcasing those appreciative feelings so they can catch on and be amplified. This is why they can help communities embrace rewilding and reintroductions of keystone species in a more positive, enthusiastic way. Art can be the lens through which rewilding brings positive feelings to communities. I’d like to see rewilded spaces that are also galleries of rock art, so that these are spaces where nature and culture interact and allow humans to feel engaged with and part of those natural spaces.

That’s why I’ve chosen to make my current series of rock art creations a set of images of some of those keystone species, each one being an ecosystem engineer that helps to balance out other forces and create habitats where many other species thrive. These are my Keystone Creations paintings, expressing my yearning for a rewilding of the countryside. All are made from homemade earth pigment paints, and painted onto rock surfaces.

To be honest, I don’t think rewilding is the best term, in as much as wild tends to be seen as one half of a polarised duality. It has an opposite: tame. But tame is a relative term. It just means subject to the will of humans. Humans are wild with respect to, say squirrels, because we’re not subject to their will. Meanwhile, an animal that is wild to us might be tame in the way it relates to its own kind, like, say, a wolf that’s part of a pack, an elephant that’s part of a herd, and so on. We tend to see things in anthropocentric ways. And calling a natural landscape “undeveloped”, ignores the enormous complexity of the natural systems that have developed there.

There’s also an implication that “wild” is the opposite of “civilised”. I do use the name Rewilding, as it would be churlish not to, but it does grate slightly against the vision I have of culture and nature working together, and of living in harmony with nature as a criteria of what it really means to be civilised. By allowing the return of appropriate numbers of large herbivores – an important part of rewilding – corridors through the woods are opened up, for the benefit of many other animals. This has more in common with the road-building projects of civilisation than it does with things going wild. Plants are trimmed by grazing and browsing, becoming less leggy and kept in better balance with each other rather than trying to crowd each other out. You could justifiably call this process “Retaming”. And with keystone species acting as ecosystem engineers, they achieve a type of cultivation of the natural world that would not take places without them, and the word “cultivate” is connected in etymology an meaning to “culture”. What I’d like to see is a blossoming of culture and of nature. But “Rewilding” it is. So be it. 

Speaking of nature and cultural being integrated and complementary, one of the things I’ll be exploring in my Keystone Creation posts is a particular rock art culture – that of Australia – which provides scope for cultural concepts that harmonise well with ecology, taking the idea of the order that emerged in the Dreamtime as a metaphor for the balanced ecosystems that emerged in evolutionary time, and viewing the concept of the totemic Dreamtime beings who became one with the land as a metaphor for those keystone species that became part of ecological landscapes, and taking the ongoing invocation of Dreamtime essence through rock art creation as an equivalent to my own project of Rock Art for Rewilding.