Topic: CommunityHow Present I Am: three perspectives on neurodiversity, creative work and ecology

Neurodiversity adheres neither to a single definition, nor a uniform experience. In this taster from our new issue, Elspeth Wilson describes how her nature writing and creative work intersect with both her sensory needs, and the environment around her, and speaks to Jane Burn, poet and illustrator, and Tzipporah Johnston, embroiderer and visual artist, about their own experiences. Edited by Zainab Mahmood.

By Elspeth Wilson

Elspeth Wilson, creative writer and facilitator

Star flower
your name comes from the sky
a gift bestowed in your flowers
planted in a graveyard on a cold
Parisian day wind whipping hair and
memories the of point of colour
of brightness of future - thanking us
for our faith, the promise of soil delivered
in you

Cherry blossom next to the building site. The undulating movements of a pigeon walking with only one leg. Being in a field with no one else around, the nervousness of aloneness but the bliss that that means there can be no unexpected (human) noise. Playing storm sounds or a ‘babbling brook’ soundtrack when I’m trying to work or fall asleep, in an attempt to bring the sensory respite nature affords me indoors.

Nature is my safe place. I write about it again and again, mostly words that will never be shown to anyone other than myself. I keep a nature diary to disappear into if I'm feeling overwhelmed, immersing myself in memories of soothing details or beautiful things I’ve seen. If I can, I'll choose to write outside too; art can come from stress for some people but for me I find it far easier to create in environments which meet my sensory needs.

I spend much of my life trying to moderate my sensory environment to make sure that lighting and noise don't overwhelm me and that I don’t become dysregulated. A flickering electric light can throw out my whole day, as can someone taking a call on speaker on the bus. But sunlight never bothers me. My brain can choose to filter out or enjoy birdsong or wind in a way that it absolutely cannot with someone playing music out loud on their phone or too much background noise in a pub or restaurant.

My brain can choose to filter out or enjoy birdsong or wind in a way that it absolutely cannot with someone playing music out loud on their phone

Nature isn’t straightforwardly healing for me but it is a balm for my senses. There’s no clear cut narrative of nature having ‘saved’ or cured me – it’s not linear or even a process, but rather a repetition. The way my senses are highly attuned and prone to overwhelm is a part of me and will affect me again and again, requiring a return to nature again and again, too.

A return to the sound of birds chattering, wind stroking my cheek, the calming sounds of running water or even the white noise of road traffic. My senses are soothed by nature and then writing comes in as a way to both process and elongate this – it's not just nature that is calming but reflection upon it. My brain moves so fast that writing gives me a chance to hold onto the experience, to savour it more, to translate sensory bliss into something concrete, to follow the tributaries of my mind – constantly pulled apart and put together by my senses – and to find the beauty within that.

Jane Burn, poet and illustrator

I don’t even mind this gentle wet. The pebbles in my garden
deepen in their damp skins. Such blues, browns and reds!
Such cobble-granite, quartz and sparkling white!

I've got a lot of gentle colours. I haven't got a lot of what I would call big, loud flowers. I like small, sweet, gentle things: I have a collection of grasses because they're incredibly sensory, they're incredibly quiet. When wind moves through them, watching them sway, watching them undulate sounds very soothing. The grass is singing in a wonderfully sensory way. I spend a lot of time touching them and putting my hand through them, because some of them are quite long so feeling them, interacting with them physically, is incredibly lovely.

Print of a Shetland pony
Jane Burn, Shetland Pony, 2020.

If I'm going somewhere that I'm not familiar with and it's overwhelmingly beautiful, that creates a problem for me because I will start to cry. I will become overwhelmed because there's so much information. Some people will say ‘put your camera down, look’ and I'm like ‘no, there's a reason I'm taking photographs.’ I will want to look at this later so I can feel that this is inspiring. I can feel that I will want to write about it. When I've had a chance to come away and calm down and start formulating this collection of information, that's then when the poems start to come. After I have seen it, come away and then re-research what I've seen, then I write about it when I've got home.

The art is very different because I won't start a picture until suddenly something will appear almost fully formed in my head, and I don't need to do preliminary sketches or anything. The visual art is incredibly unconscious, the writing is much more conscious. Visual art is much more connected to pleasure with me, whereas the writing and reading are a lot more connected to pain.

Visual art is much more connected to pleasure with me, whereas the writing and reading are a lot more connected to pain

It was quite difficult to write about a place and not somehow be in it. This is another thing about accessibility and opening up nature writing for people with different access needs: you don't have to be there to be authentic about being there. Something I haven't fully worked out is how present I am – between a physical presence and a belief that you're there because you want so desperately to be. You're still seeing a place whether you're seeing it in front of your eyes or in front of a screen, so I've never quite managed to remove the self, because the self is driving all of that desire to be present in it.

People say ‘oh, there shouldn't be an “I” voice in nature writing.’ I think it's pointless because just by the physical act of writing that poem, you're there, you are speaking it through you, you are processing that through you, that is all you.

Tzipporah Johnston, embroiderer and visual artist

I think autism impacts how I experience the natural world, and also just the world in general, especially monotropism.[1] It's kind of the lens through which I see the world generally. I often feel overwhelmed by the constant demands of modern life and decision making and there's a sense of calm and quiet and relief, retreating into nature.

Embroidery of a bee
Tzipporah Johnston, Bee-rometer, 2020.

I think there is a compulsive element to the way that I make things and also just to the way I consume things. When I want to look at all the lichen on this tree, I'm so excited and that's when I'm not feeling anxious. When I don't have something that I could completely be consumed in, then it allows the anxious place in.

I think that it's not a coincidence that I embroider rather than paint or draw: there is something about embroidery that's specifically monotropic[1], it's very repetitive. You are forced to completely slow down your mind to the pace of the stitch going through the fabric and there's something grounding about the sense of touch and all of the textures of the fabric and the threads.

There's something grounding about the sense of touch and all of the textures of the fabric and the threads

I think sometimes that my art is an extension of that desire to freeze and really know something. It's not enough that I see a bee and then want to read about bees and know all about the bee and its life and its lifecycle, then I want to make the bee. Maybe this is part of the monotropic desire in me about immersing myself in it, but also making it manageable, making the world manageable. If I can completely understand this bee, maybe I can understand life.

[1] A monotropic mind focuses attention on a small number of interests or subjects at any one time, sometimes missing that which lies outside this attention tunnel. Monotropism is a cognitive strategy, sometimes posited as a central underlying feature of autism.

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