The following essay will also be published in the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics online journal, Stravaig.
In June I attended the interdisciplinary ‘Expressing the Earth’ gathering on Seil Island. After a life-affirming few days of talks, walks and conversations, many disparate parts of my life and work began to emerge as parts of a coherent whole that had not revealed itself to me in quite the same way before. I left energised and inspired, for the first time in a long time, to reflect, to write and to re-connect with that which is important to me. This essay is a reflection on that experience, tracing both my own journey into geopoetics and the contours of an emerging creative practice.
I’m an ethnologist. Ethnology is a form of interdisciplinary anthropological research and practice that, at its heart, seeks to understand how we, as humans, make life meaningful. We might describe it as the study of how communities (ethnoi) make sense of themselves to themselves in particular places through cultural memory and creative expression . Often, the focus of ethnological study is on our relationship with the past and how we make sense of it in the present; as such, ethnology has been closely associated with its sister discipline of folklore and the study of local traditional culture as a creative expression of place .
In Scotland - in part a response to the cultural and political context in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum and ongoing debates in arts, culture and higher education - a group of ethnologists and creative practitioners have begun to explore the potential of a ‘creative ethnology’ outwith the strictures of the university . Implicit in the notion of creative ethnology is a creative practice. As ethnologist Ullrich Kockel has previously noted, Kenneth White insisted on the need not only for a ‘new philosophy of poetry,’ but a ‘new poetic anthropology’ . ‘The real work,’ White writes, ‘consists in changing the categories, grounding a new anthropology, moving towards a new experience of the earth and of life.’ ‘To be truly creative,’ writes Norman Bissell,
I invited Ullrich – a friend and fellow ethnologist whose writing I admire - if we might take ‘Expressing the Earth’ as an opportunity to explore what might be possible for a radical creative ethnology that boldly embraces geopoetics.
Many of us will be able to bring to mind a moment or meaningful encounter in our lives – perhaps a piece of art or literature, a live performance, being in nature, a chance meeting, a discovery, being together, solitude – that has stuck with us, that caused us to think differently, to see the world in a new way. We began the conversation at Expressing the Earth by inviting participants to reflect upon and share such an experience. We talked about Nan Shepherd’s ‘unheralded moments of revelation’ in her journey into The Living Mountain (1977) and Neil Gunn’s ‘moments of sheer unconditional delight' . In The Atom of Delight (1956), Gunn writes about his quest for
While we may find it difficult to express the full meaning of such encounters in everyday language, for many, these are the most meaningful and significant of our lives. As an ethnologist, I’m interested in these moments, these heightened aesthetic experiences that re-frames or affirms our perception of the world and our relationship to it. A ‘heightened aesthetic experience’ is understood here not in the sense of a matter of judgement or taste, but rather - as opposed to the anaesthetic experience – as one in which our senses are operating at their peak, when we are present in the current moment with heightened awareness, when we are fully alive.
My own PhD research - which I have been revisiting recently through a geopoetic lens - explored the aesthetics and poetics of the traditional ballad . Rather than focusing on a collection of folklore ‘texts’, I was interested in the embodied aesthetic experience of performance - in this case, the shivers, tingles, and chills we sometimes experience listening to unaccompanied traditional song:
In order to make sense of such experiences, we reach for metaphor - for poetic language - to create and re-create meaning. Metaphor has poetic power precisely because it re-connects abstract thought with embodied experience, providing ‘a grounding we often fail to see precisely because it is so pervasive and fundamental' . The philosopher Mark Johnson makes the case that all metaphors are grounded in our visceral experience; it is through our bodily perceptions, movements, senses and emotions that meaning becomes possible. That is to say, all aspects of meaning-making are fundamentally aesthetic.
A richly poetic example of creative ‘thinking by metaphor’ is the Spanish Frederico Garcia Lorca’s ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’ (1933). The elusive duende is a metaphor that reaches to make sense of a heightened aesthetic experience in response to expressive art, in this case, cante jondo or deep song. Lorca describes it as
The duende is the ‘mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained,’ and ‘draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression' . The duende, of course, appealed to folklorist Hamish Henderson as an idea that contained all that he found difficult to express about the inexpressible and elemental qualities of traditional folk culture . Henderson noted that in Scotland, the Travellers have an expression, the conyach, which is used to describe the intangible creative power which can release the affective power of a song or tune .
We might say we are ‘deeply moved’ by such an experience. The metaphorical expression ‘moved’ is semantically related to ‘motion,’ and also, interestingly, to ‘emotion,’ suggesting a kind of journey or transformation. This raises the question of experienced subjectivity: the human capacity to feel and to be aware of that which is being felt as being meaningful and significant. The term ‘deeply’ is based on the belief that human meanings exist not on a single plane but on a spectrum, ranging from the trivial to the profound. The new position to which we are moved, metaphorically, is ‘deep.’ The metaphorical use of ‘depth’ suggests something that cannot be seen clearly when we are positioned at the surface - something perhaps only surmised or fathomed vaguely, leaving room for ambiguity and imagination. When that which is hidden is suddenly seen, we are struck by meanings resonant with a sense of that which is most real to us: our consciousness of ourselves as being in and of the world. It is on these occasions that we become aware, if only fleetingly, that we are here, that we are alive, that we are connected.
Into the Field
To begin to understand the creative process of meaning making in the case of the ‘ballad experience’, my ethnological enquiry was rooted in the tradition of European hermeneutic phenomenology . Phenomenology is a research method that attends to the affective dimension of our embodied experience; hermeneutics is concerned with how we interpret and express our subjective lived experience in and through language in a process of meaning-making.
What is the relationship between our embodied experience and perception, and the language we use to express it? Is it possible to express essential reality in human language? I came later to discover that these are the very questions of geopoetics .
In truth, I found the experience of academic research both thrilling and strangely alienating; alienating in the sense that, in such an intensely cerebral environment, I felt disconnected from my own body. I discovered that it’s quite possible to grasp or comprehend a philosophical concept but not understand it, bodily. Theoretical explanations quickly become removed from lived reality and from the infinitely rich experience that cause us to want to think more deeply about our experience in the first place. In geopoetics, I found a way to reconcile - or perhaps reconnect, in a way that made sense to me - the rigour of cerebral, analytic work with the experience of being a body in the world. For me, this is what geopoetics was first about: seeking awareness and understanding both intellectually, by developing knowledge, and sensitively, ‘using all our senses to become attuned to the world' .
I visualise geopoetics as the rigorous pursuit of clarity of thought, chasing those flashes of insight, creativity and connection, but always grounded in my embodied, aesthetic experience of being-in-the-world. It requires a slowing down, a time for quiet reflection, and paying close attention. I can remember the very moment geopoetics first made sense to me. I was on an escape from academia to Oldshoremore beach in North West Sutherland, just south of Cape Wrath. The experience of being in this open, lunar, treeless landscape is, for me, like pressing a giant re-set button. I was out for a barefoot walk along the beach one evening when the setting sun hit the water, and remembered White's poem, 'A High Blue Day on Scalpay':
This is a phenomenological poem: it is a poetic manifestation of elemental experience, literal and concrete as it is abstract and metaphorical. Here, ‘the power of the simple strikes through to a place of primordial selving where…we are reattuned to the otherness of the startling cosmos’ .
Being-between: a transformation in thinking
‘Why does one study?’ asks Kenneth White. ‘To become unlettered.’ Geopoetics endeavours to get at this trackless space, this ‘unlettered light.’ Like Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological ‘radical reflection’  or Heidegger’s hermeneutic drive ‘to get back to the beginning of thought’ , geopoetics requires an openness and readiness to both recognise and consciously abandon inherited concepts, philosophical assumptions, cultural baggage, language and discourse, to ‘clear the way’ for a direct encounter of with the world. It’s a process of radical unlearning. Such a ‘transformation in thinking’ requires a ‘mindfulness transcending instrumental reason, to a renewing of our being in the middle.’
In order to think nomadically, the middle point is the point from which to begin . The task of White’s intellectual nomad, his poet-thinker, is to traverse both a landscape and a mindscape to get back to a moment more primordial, the moment before our present thought-forms, in order to grasp something essential, elemental. From this new ground, this entre-deux, new ideas can emerge. This is what White means by grounding a new anthropology:
We find this approach to life, for example, in Nan Shepherd, who writes exquisitely of those ‘moments on the mountain’ when she is ‘not bedevilled by thought,’ ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through' . Such moments come most often ‘waking out of outdoor sleep, gazing tranced at the running of the water and listening to its song.’
For me, these ‘moments’ most often come in musical experience, particularly listening to the old songs. Rilke said it: existence is song (Dasein ist Gesang).
The experience of singing too is a profound experience of coming into embodied being. On some occasions, I am so focused on singing a song that I experience the sensation of becoming my voice. This could be described or understood as form of ex-stasis. Paradoxically, we become more aware of ourselves as being a body, while at the same time, our awareness requires us to be outside of ourselves. In singing, we become aware of our own otherness. It’s the experience of being between.
In returning to the elemental, we find a breakthrough in the interstices, a way to ‘think our way through’ with liminal freedom. The very meaning of the word ‘hermeneutic’ is tied up with this idea of ‘being between.’ The word can be traced back to the myth of Greek figure Hermes, a sort of shaman — spirit of the gaps, god of boundaries and roads, music and playful thought. To exist hermeneutically is to stands in this gap between past and present, this zone of ‘world-disclosure' .
This is where White’s interest in the figure of the shaman lies .The shaman can access this state of between-ness by standing (or moving) outside the socio-historical context to ‘penetrate deep into the territory of perception, deep into participation in the earth’ in order to bring back those elemental experiences and perceptions back to the community . White sees the shaman as a myth-metaphor for a figure with a role in society that goes beyond the narrow understanding of ‘the artist’ that we have today (as ‘reflector of the state of things,’ inside a closed circle), to something deeper – an ability to maintain an open contact between the socio-human context and the world. What the shaman as a metaphor points to is an art, a creation, a poesis, which draws on that liminal space in order to open up new perceptions. It is from this marginal zone that the great artists, writers, and social critics have been able to look past the prevailing social forms in order to see from the outside and to bring back insights from beyond it. That is to say, artists are able to keep the ‘between’ live in ways others do not.
A Creative Ethnology: every man is an artist
The shaman is both the ‘great outsider’ who sees things from a distance and, as custodian of archaic images and themes of original cosmic perception, also the great ‘whole-holder’. In many ways, ethnology shares something of that shamanic ability to see things whole from a distance, to ‘keep the whole in view’ , in order to suggest how we might transform ourselves. An education in ethnology does more than furnish us with knowledge; it educates our perception of the world and opens our eyes and minds to other possibilities of being. In Merleau-Ponty’s understanding,
As both Kockel and Walters have discussed,  the German artist Joseph Beuys believed that the birthright of all human beings is our capacity to shape society - to transform and be transformed by it. Beuys argued that we must bring our whole selves – our intuition and imagination, as well as our rational thinking, our will – to a conscious, active participation in culture, in a form of ‘social sculpture.’ This is what he meant by his famous words ‘everyone is an artist.’ This understanding of the artist appeals to an expanded anthropological notion of creativity. ‘Culture’ is understood here not as a category of sociological enquiry but rather as process, constantly reshaping in new and meaningful forms . Culture has a direction, a sense of the ‘horizon of the possible’ . In White’s view, culture is ‘the way human beings conceive of, work at and direct themselves.’ If 'agri-culture means working at a field to produce the best crop,' he writes, then ‘human culture means working at the most harmonious growth of the individual.’
White’s call for a ‘poetic anthropology’ suggests a creative approach to fieldwork, much like the artistic process . For some, the creative potential of ethnology is about finding more imaginative ways to share our research through creative output, such as performance or creative writing; for others the potential is in its interdisciplinarity: how we engage in vital dialogue – cultivating ‘sympathy, synthesis and synergy’ – with other fields, such as ecology or the arts . This is not simply a question of drawing on the creativity of ‘the artist’; there is a sense too in which we must become artists ourselves. Like Beuys’ social sculpture, as creative fieldworkers, ‘we make the field, but the field also makes us’ .
Transformation is at the heart of culture, a continuous process of renewal.
From Thought to Action: radical transformations
As a discipline, ethnology values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience and understands the importance of our ecological connection to place. As practitioners in the field, we dig where we stand; our own personal roots, as well as our own local place, are vital to our theory-practice. How we choose to write about the world constitutes a deeply political choice, and we cannot escape our potential effects on the people or communities around us (effects which are inescapably political).
As Kockel has observed, many ethnologists are motivated by concerns ‘not unlike those that have inspired the work of artists, poets, theologians and campaigners’ . These shared concerns include a desire to create and to connect, to seek and share knowledge, to raise awareness, to challenge the use of power, to bring people together, to search for meaning, to imagine and make manifest new ways of thinking and being. Speaking personally, an ethnological being-in-the-world also speaks to the need for an activist orientation in practice. Many ethnologists consciously engage in different forms of cultural and political work – for example, in consciousness raising, advocacy and social change .
What, then, might be possible if we approached our theory-practice with an open, geopoetic mind?
As part of his project ‘Earth Writing,’ anarchist geographer Simon Springer argues for a theoretically informed, critically reflective scholar-activism that boldly embraces geopoetics . In defence of any anti-intellectual accusation of ‘esotericism,’ he argues passionately that we need theory for meaningful action as much we need meaningful action to refine our theories:
For Springer, geopoetics demands praxis . This is because a geopoetic worldview allows us to ‘replace the hubris that so often attaches itself to academia, with a modesty and humility that brings us into greater contact with the world’, by venturing into the ‘unchartable terrain that is the mystery of life’ and by acknowledging the ‘hidden enfolded immensities,’ ‘sheer physical messiness,’ and the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’ that can never be captured, pinned down, or fully understood . He writes,
This is why geopoetics is vitally important: it can be directed to align our bearings with different kinds of deep poetic, cultural and political work, where ‘the scope of theory and the hope of creativity collide in kaleidoscope .
Cultural Renewal: a live, lasting culture
In a series of essays on the theme of cultural renewal, White calls for the need to ‘reground’, to reconnect with ground on which we stand. ‘A country,’ he writes ‘begins with a ground, a geology. When it loses contact with that, it’s no longer a country at all. It’s just a supermarket, Disneyland or a madhouse’ . Geopoetics, in pursuit of this ground, traces structures, ideas, themes, expressions, lifelines back to the archaic landscape, and forwards into possible developments, outside and beyond the discourse of any Celtic Romanticism, nationalism or identity ideology. Crucially, White was seeking a local grounding for this new world-view. This is not nationalist and provincial, but parochial in the most expansive sense of the word. Parochial is universal, it deals with the fundamentals. By placing cultural elements in a wider context, we give them greater scope. In the words of Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh,
To extend the hermeneutic metaphor, in order find a country other that its stereotyped image, we must grasp the elements of culture and make ‘renewed contact with the landscape’ . ‘We need minds’, writes White, that that can draw the ‘significant lines together’ through geography, history, culture and open up new ways of ‘inhabiting the Earth’ in this place:
This, to me, is the role of the creative ethnologist as artist-philosopher, as poet-thinker, as cultural activist: to ‘draw the significant lines together,’ to ‘reconnect poetics and politics,’ to push culture forwards, developed with, not against, the past. Kockel talks of ethnology as ‘engaged toposophy’ , a way to release ‘the wisdom that sits in places’ . It’s field-work. It’s poetic work.
Ethnology strives for an overview of the field, but - much like the experience of singing - we must both stand outside and be immersed in this work. As a cultural project, a geopoetic creative ethnology can inspire a radical process and re-engagement with a broader and deeper understanding of culture in this place, not by looking back and re-performing fixed heritage, but by generating new meanings. This is also an ethical project . One reaction to our current situation, often in an attempt to ‘re-connect with the earth,’ is the embrace and appropriation of pick’n’mix world folk cultures devoid of any context, knowledge or understanding. This pursuit is, in effect, a form of unreflected colonialism. While we may be able to create sustainable ways of living out of bits and pieces selected from diverse cultures across the globe, it would be wholly unwise to attempt this without first understanding these elements in their original contexts (and appreciating the consequences of taking them out of those contexts). As ethnologists, we must work towards developing a shared reflexivity and respectful, cultural awareness.
Geopoetics calls for poeisis – the making, gathering, the bringing together. As ‘artists of the everyday’, we, as ethnologists, must bring our whole selves to a conscious, active participation in culture. We must find ways to ‘rekindle those transformative powers which are vital, not only in order for social, revolutionary change to occur, but to confront the challenges of the future' . The affective force of our aesthetic experience helps us articulate new ideas. A greater responsiveness to the world engenders a keener sense of ethical responsibility towards it. This is where ‘possibility becomes possible.’ As Tony McManus mused,
‘To be truly creative’ in our field of endeavour, we need to bring this ‘sensitive awareness and openness to the world’ and engage in ways that promote a joyful, enlivened, connected state of being. It is to participate in our collective human attempt to find meaning in its fullest realisation. Such a way of being has potential to re-energise individuals and develop a grounded, live, lasting culture that is connected to the world.
With thanks to Ullrich Kockel and David Francis from the National Council of Geopoetics for reading early drafts of this essay and offering thoughts and advice.
 Ullrich Kockel explains, ‘the theoretical basis…lies not in any singular discipline, but rather…in the interaction of different approaches to commons issues, the culture and life-style of a particular land and is people,' in The Catharsis of European Ethnology Borderline Cases: The Ethnic Frontiers of European Integration. 1999, p79
 Ethnology and folklore could be viewed as ‘non-identical twins within a family of disciplines that study the culture of humanity.’ Gary West, Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation. 2012, p36.
 Although the term ‘creative ethnology’ was used before (West 2012), it acquired wider currency and meaning following Gary West’s inaugural lecture as Personal Chair in Scottish Ethnology, ‘Performing Oral Testimony: Towards a Creative Ethnology for the 21st Century' at the University of Edinburgh, November 30th 2016.
 Kenneth White, The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004, p145; emphasis added
 Norman Bissell, ‘Atlantic Poetics: Expanding Our Sense of World,’ Stravaig 3: Geopoetics in Practice. 2013; emphasis added
 Neil Gunn, Highland River. 1937, p48
 Neil Gunn, Atom of Delight. 1956, p8
 ‘The Space Between is Where the Maysie Lives: Presence, Imagination and Experience in the Traditional Ballad,’ University of Edinburgh. 2012
 Sheila Stewart, personal fieldwork
 Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. 2007
 Fredercio Garcia Lorca, ‘Theory and Play of The Duende’
 Hamish Henderson, Alias MacAlias: Writings of Songs, Folk and Literature. 2002 (1992)
 Listen to Hamish Henderson, Belle and Sheila Stewart discuss the conyach on Tobar an Dualchais here:
 See, for example Frykman & Gilje Being There: New Perspectives on Phenomenology and the Analysis of Culture. 2003
 Tony McManus, The Radical Field. 2007, p148.
 Kenneth White, ‘What is geopoetics?’ 1989
 William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind. 1990, p275
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. 1945
 Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language. 1959
 William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind .1990, p275
 Translated in Tony McManus, The Radical Field. 2007 p74
 Nan Shepherd, Letter to Neill Gunn, 1940
 Quoted in William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind. 1990 p270
 Ibid p275
 Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language. 1959
 Kenneth White, ‘A Shaman Dancing on the Glacier,’ On Scottish Ground: Selected Essays. 1998, pp35 - 48
 Tony McManus, The Radical Field. 2007 p73
 Konrad Kostlin, ‘The Passion for the Whole: Interpreted Modernity or Modernity as Interpretation.’ The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 110, No. 437 (Summer, 1997), pp. 260-276
 Merleau-Ponty, Signes. 1960, p150
 Victoria Walters, Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d, 2012; Ullrich Kockel, ‘Morphogenetic Fieldwork and the Ethnologic of Toposophy: Mediation on a Coyote Wandering on Rannoch Moor’ Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics 2011
 For example, Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. 2011
 Kenneth White, The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004 p245
 Quoted in Ullrich Kockel, ‘Morphogenetic Fieldwork and the Ethnologic of Toposophy: Mediation on a Coyote Wandering on Rannoch Moor’ Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics (eds) Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, Victoria Walters, 2011, p207
 Ullrich Kockel ,‘Liberating the Ethnological Imagination,’ Ethnologia Europaea: Journal of European Ethnology 38:1 2008, p8
 Ullrich Kockel, ‘Morphogenetic Fieldwork and the Ethnologic of Toposophy: Mediation on a Coyote Wandering on Rannoch Moor’ Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics (eds) Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, Victoria Walters, 2011 p205
 Ullrich Kockel, ‘Morphogenetic Fieldwork and the Ethnologic of Toposophy: Mediation on a Coyote Wandering on Rannoch Moor’ Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics (eds) Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, Victoria Walters, 2011 p248
 See for example, Local Voices CIC www.localvoices.co.uk
 Simon Springer, ‘Earth Writing,’ GeoHumanities, 2017. 3:1, 1-19
 Ibid, p15
 Ibid, p9, my italics
 Simon Springer, ‘Human geography without hierarchy.’ Progress in Human Geography, 2014. 38 (3): 402–19 p410
 Simon Springer, (2017) Earth Writing, GeoHumanities, 3:1, 1-19 p16, my italics
 Ibid, p4
 Kenneth White, ‘The Re-Mapping of Scotland,’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004
 Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Parish and the Universe.’ Collected Pruse. 1973
 Kenneth White, ‘Scotland, History and the Writer,’ On Scottish Ground: Selected Essays. 1998, p157
 Kenneth White, ‘The Re-Mapping of Scotland,’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004, p197
 Ullrich Kocklel European Ethnology as Engaged Toposophy.’ Identity Politics: Histories, Regions and Borderlands: Acta Historica Universitatis Klaipedensis XIX, Studia Anthropologica III, 2009, 147–163
 Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and Landscape. 1996
 Kockel argues that a ‘guarded approach’ is required in the use of ethnology, ‘a discipline which stood at the cradle of (romantic) nationalism and identity politics, with all their subsequent excesses that it often served to legitimise.’ Borderline Cases: The Ethnic Frontiers of European Integration. 1999, p77
 Victoria Walters, Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d. 2012. p348
 Tony McManus, The Radical Field. 2007