People, Places and Phenomena: A model?

Jim Kimmis muses further on the debate over whether earth mysteries can claim to be a discrete entity.

Although I dropped out of the EM scene many years ago, I read John Billingsley’s ‘E.m is dead – Long live e.m.!’ (NE98) with interest. It is useful to locate the development of earth mysteries within a broader cultural history, and correct to identify it as one of the outcomes of the radical interrogation of received ideas that characterised the 1960-70s – a movement certainly Romantic in spirit, if not always in practice.

It is also correct to identify EM’s core with the earlier cultural phenomenon of antiquarianism, although EM quickly sent out peripheral growths which would have seemed quite alien to previous generations of antiquarians. Though I can see that a neo-antiquarian tag could quite happily be pasted over the rather tatty earth mysteries label, it would probably not be large enough to represent everything in EM’S accumulated baggage.

From its inception, EM attracted interest from people with a spiritual or mystical orientation, and hence a concern with the future, as much as or even more than those who sought an enlarged understanding of the past. An important part of the agenda has been an attempt to reclaim neglected aspects of the past for present and future purposes, which has clear parallels in other cultural movements born in the 1960s, including feminism, queer theory, Black history and the rewriting of national history from working-class perspectives.

The problem for EM has been that the urge to reclaim the past tends to be indiscriminate. Those who wish to develop a new understanding and new ways of acting are not generally doing either science or history, though they may make free use of any materials which they offer, in much the same way that poets or painters may do. The point is, I suppose, that reclaiming the past is an exercise of imagination – which was central to the Romantic tradition.

It may be helpful, as John proposes, to see EM as a kind of inquiring dynamic, rather than a field, subject or substance. Then the single defining characteristic of EM activity would indeed seem to be “constantly asking questions of the past and the way we perceive it”. The latter part of this phrase is important – our understanding of the past is more than a perception: it is also an imaginative reconstruction, an interpretation necessarily shaped by our beliefs about the world, theories of human nature, and own subjective responses to the things that interest us about the past and its relict evidence. The subject of the inquiry is then as much ourselves in the present as it is the beliefs and practices of earlier generations.

The concluding section of the article suggests that the antiquarian tradition may not be broad enough to accommodate contemporary concerns with consciousness, aesthetics, anomalous phenomena and the complex interactions between people and places. The doubt is well-founded: if the EM label no longer serves to characterise our inquiry, the (neo-)antiquarian label is no more accurate or comprehensive, or perhaps useful. Perhaps the way forward is to put cultural history aside for a moment and attempt to reconsider things from first principles: what are we doing, and why are we doing it?

I don’t think EM is in the reclamation business, or at least not in the same way as, say, neo-pagans are. As the article rightly points out, any belief system can only be detrimental to the radical spirit of inquiry. There is a slowly expanding store of knowledge about ways in which human communities have lived and thought, and it is the very diversity of such cultural adaptations that ought to be of interest to us now, alerting us to the fact that we can (to some extent) choose how to live in the future.

I’d like to suggest a tripartite model that seems to me to capture most elements of the e.m. inquiry, and certainly to accommodate rather more than ‘earth mysteries’ or ‘antiquarianism’. The three terms of this model can be given the shorthand tags: people, places, phenomena [1].

The first term refers both to communities and individuals, whether past or present; the second refers very generally to the spatial aspects of the world in which we live and move, comprising landscapes, sites, paths and cognitive maps; the third refers both to events and our perception and interpretation of events, incorporating both objective and subjective elements, and leaving room for anomalous and ‘daimonic’ experiences.

pppIt seems to me that EM has concerned itself with some of the ways in which these three terms come together; but that the continuing dynamic of inquiry is free to address itself to the full range of interactions between people, places and phenomena. The model, deliberately vague at this stage, leaves room for both expansion and more precise definition. It is not tied to the past, but allows for connections to be explored between past and present human experience. Nor is it tied to any system of belief or ideological project, other than the belief that inquiry is a proper activity for human minds and enhanced understanding a proper goal.

The now-defunct At The Edge had on its front cover the mission statement: “Exploring new interpretations of past and place in archaeology, folklore and mythology”. As its title proclaimed, the journal positioned itself metaphorically in a liminal space between acknowledged domains. The NE98 article does much the same: “We belong on the fringe, among the ginger groups of informed amateurs and outsiders that have always been instrumental in moving ideas forward”. While this is true, it suggests the possibility that ‘we’ will always be confined to the margins of the cultural space that we hope to illuminate. It would be bolder (too bold?) to affirm the centrality of the inquiry into people, places and phenomena, as being an attempt to reach the heart of what it is to be human.

The current mission statement of Northern Earth seems to me to get close to what is needed, particularly in its closing phrase: “the interface of human consciousness and the land from prehistory to the present” [2]. But the search for a suitable name defeats me at the moment as it has done others before me! I’d like to think that this is because the endeavour is genuinely a new one, of such a broad scope that it resists being defined in terms of what is already familiar. Perhaps out of the present reflective phase an appropriate reformulation will emerge…

JIM KIMMIS, 1954-2006

It is with deep personal regret that we note the passing of Jim Kimmis. Jim was involved in the early history of earth mysteries in the 1970s, contributing articles to such journals as Nigel Pennick’s Institute of Geomantic Research Newsletter and editing Essex Landscape Mysteries.

Jim’s best-known contributions to the field may be the linguistic implications of the Indo-European ‘reg-‘ as regards straightness and power, and the Ongar Terrestrial Zodiac (both of which he later repudiated). It is ironic that the work which gained him high respect among fellow researchers was not published, as he was loath to publish something he felt to be still unfinished – though even unfinished it generally went further than much published in academic or non-academic spheres.

His interests took him into in-depth local landscape and cultural studies, but he returned to neo-antiquarian publications in 2004, with an important article in NE100, ‘People, Places and Phenomena’, suggesting a model for neo-antiquarianism that could yet serve to integrate and define the field.

Those who knew him well feel about Jim’s life how Jim felt about his own work; there was so much more to come. We hope to publish some of Jim’s hitherto unseen but significant work in the future; and we are pleased to have begun in this issue with his phenomenological reflection on walking.


[1] The shorthand ‘PPP’ tag is convenient as a mnemonic, but it would be useful to give the model a name that clearly announces its nature and purpose. One could borrow a trick from the academic world and go to Classical Greek etymology for a resounding title – but neither anthropo- (man) nor demo- (population) will really do for ‘people’, neither would geo- (Earth) nor -thesis (position) stand for ‘place’, while phainomenon (thing seen) is already polysyllabic, even before -ologia is added to it. Something simpler is surely required!

[2] One term for what happens at an interface is hermeneutics, or interpretation; and the art of the Greek hermeneutikos was considered a sacred occupation governed by the god Hermes, who may well be considered the patron spirit of EM activity. But as the term ‘hermeneutics’ already refers to the discipline of interpreting (particularly sacred) books, it is probably no longer available for other uses.

Published in NE100, Winter 2004, pp.23-25

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