Forget Covid: this year's Edinburgh Festivals are all about the environment

From the Book Festival and the Art Festival to the International Festival and the Fringe, in Edinburgh this August the environment and our place in it seems to be on everyone’s mind, writes Roger Cox

Janice Parker in one of her Small Acts of Hope and Lament, part of this year's Edinburgh International Festival

​​It's always tempting to try and locate the zeitgeist within the programmes of the various Edinburgh Festivals. Obviously it would be foolish to read too much into these listings – a proliferation of alien invasion-themed Fringe shows doesn't necessarily mean we're all doomed, for example. Nevertheless, when very prominent themes emerge, they can be hard to ignore.​

Such is the case this year, and I know what you're thinking: it's the pandemic, right? Well, wrong. As you'd expect, there are various Covid-themed things happening next month, from The Normal, a group exhibition at Talbot Rice as part of the Art Festival which promises "a vivid reflection of life during the pandemic", to We Missed You, a Fringe show billed as “a theatrical film about the impact of the pandemic through the eyes of clowns”.

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On the whole, though, shows specifically about the ravages of Covid-19 are surprisingly thin on the ground. Perhaps this is because many artists are still struggling to process the enormity of a cataclysmic, once-in-a-century event that's very much ongoing; perhaps it's because there's a general consensus that, after almost a year and a half of Covid-induced misery, the last thing audiences want from a festival is more of the same. Whatever the reasons, Covid-themed shows are low in the mix.

By contrast, shows about the environment are everywhere you look, and particularly shows that combine wider environmental issues with more personal concerns.

Some of these tap into the phenomenon – much commented on at the time – which saw the sudden, unexpected silence of the first UK lockdown in the spring of 2020 make people feel much more aware of the natural world around them.

A good example of this is Janice Parker's series of films, Small Acts of Hope and Lament, being screened as part of the Edinburgh International Festival's Dancing in the Streets strand.

Parker works primarily as a choreographer rather than as a performer, but during lockdown she began to film herself dancing every day in her local park. This just so happened to be Edinburgh's stunning Holyrood Park, a little pocket of wild land right in the heart of the city, and she came to refer to her films as “duets with nature”.

Meanwhile, over at the Book Festival, there’s a whole series of events dedicated to the environment – it's called “A Planet in Crisis: Ideas for Action” but although that sounds a little impersonal, many of the events within it are anything but.

As if to prove the point, Julian Aguon and Nina Mingya Powles's joint appearance is actually called “Making Environmental Politics Personal”. Aguon is a human rights lawyer and his book, The Properties of Perpetual Lights, draws on his experiences fighting for indigenous rights and environmental justice on the island of Guam. Powles is a writer and publisher from New Zealand who won the Nan Shepherd Award for nature writing with her essay collection Small Bodies of Water, described by the Irish novelist Sara Baume as “a book in which nature is a medium for remembering and discovering”. In it, she meditates on the various bodies of water which have held meaning for her during her life, from the swimming pool in Borneo where she first learned to swim to the wild ocean off the coast of New Zealand to a pond in northwest London.

Also appearing as part of the Book Festival's Planet in Crisis strand is former Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, who will discuss his 2020 novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. The book is set on Tasmania, where he now lives – an island he characterises as a place of “ancient forests vanishing, beaches covered in crap, wild birds vomiting supermarket shopping bags”. Among the topics under discussion at his event, according to the blurb on the Book Festival website, is “our collective need to reconnect with our environment”.

T​his yearning to somehow plug ourselves back into the natural world also comes to the fore in this year's Edinburgh Art Festival programme, and you can't get much more plugged into nature than Matthew Arthur Williams does for his exhibition In guise of Land at Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden. Taken in various locations on the west coast of Scotland, including during a Bothy Projects residency on the Isle of Eigg, Williams's black-and-white photographs show his body, sometimes naked, sometimes not, standing or lying among rocks and bracken, sometimes seeming partially absorbed into the landscape yet always distinct from it.

In fact, if you were looking for a single image to represent the underlying mood of all the shows mentioned above, you could do worse than select one of Williams’s photographs: stuck somewhere between wanting to find our place in the natural world, and accepting that, in this era of man-made climate change, we will always struggle to be at peace with it.

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