Monday, 4 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Spiderweb Tapestry

Continuing in our series on New metaphors for sustainability, the dramaturg, writer and Associate Director of Cape Farewell, Ruth Little, chooses the Spiderweb Tapestry.

The interweaving

This is a tapestry woven from the webs of a million Golden Orb spiders in Madagascar. I read about it in Nature, and went to see it in the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Made by local weavers over five years, it's an astonishingly beautiful - perhaps miraculous - work of art. Delicately held in tiny 'stalls', the spiders were milked by hand each day and released. Whose art, though, is responsible for the tapestry? Unsigned by either the spiders or the craftspeople who wove its intricate traditional patterns from a natural substance stronger than steel, it's my metaphor for integralism, resilience, and the cooperative values underlying sustainable living.

Universal nature/human nature: The woven web

The Spiderweb Tapestry begins with the web itself - that global symbol of complexity and interconnection - and adds to it the specifically human dimensions of culture, tradition, stewardship and imagination. Produced with a combination of curiosity, great care, local knowledge and local resources, it is at once organic and mysterious; fabricated and wild, particular and universally evocative. It literally glows: it contains the 'vital materialism' described by Jane Bennett in her account of the active participation of non-human forces in events. Like Bennett, my metaphor seeks to develop and transform our sense of care in relation to both the human and the non-human world, 'to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things.'

Virtually all of earth's natural systems have now been influenced and to some extent deranged by human modes of production and consumption. We have begun to cross the threshold of catastrophic loss, compelled by an appetite that has its origins in the relatively recent intellectual separation of human nature from the matter-energy continuum of which we have always been part.

We may have been expelled from Eden for mismanagement, but the whole earth is now our home, and we have nowhere else to go. Only active, attentive and responsible stewardship of earth's living systems and the natural capital on which we rely entirely for survival will make the fabric we're woven into resilient enough to survive the shocks it's now subject to.

The Madagascan tapestry is a work of ethical ingenuity: drawing on the self-organising tendencies of the non-human world, it combines the exceptional capacities of human hands and human minds to create something much more valuable - in cultural and ecological terms - than the sum of its parts.

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