THERE are multiple points of entry to the life and death of Kenneth White – Scottish-French poet, philosopher and nomad – as befits his roaming, multiplicitous mind. Let’s begin relatively trivially.

Le Monde’s obituary depicted the son of a Gorbals railway signalman who ended up as a philosopher at the Sorbonne. White’s essays and verse have won prime literary awards in France.

So he’s a big deal. And there was plenty of conventional drama in his life. White was fired from a teaching post in 1968 for supporting France’s student uprisings (a distinction he shares with Scotland’s great theorist of nationalism Tom Nairn). White had also recently been an associate of Scottish literature’s baddest boy of the 1960s, the subversive situationist Alexander Trocchi.

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The Le Monde obit has a boulevard picture of White from 1976, curly-haired and fresh-faced, still looking as if he could chuck a cobblestone or two. But White would be as likely to contemplate the stone, as throw it. “Every tree a totem/Every rock an altar,” as he wrote in his 1979 collection North-South.

This points to a much subtler status for White – more than just being a heavily-garlanded European Scot. As founder of the discipline of geopoetics, White may well also be a future ecological resource for us all. His work and life could give Scots (and beyond) a language for loving nature, so that we might blunt our disruption of it – and its disruption of us.

So what’s geopoetics, then?

Le Monde’s obituary hazards the following definition: “It’s far from ‘a literary school’ or ‘poetry as an intimate art’. It’s about ‘step-by-step exploration’, somewhere ‘between poetry, philosophy, science’.”

Or as White (below) writes in one of his poems, it’s about “being with the Earth, just with the Earth … knowing a world stripped of fiction, chatter, and commentary”.

The National: Kenneth White

Even from that somewhat cryptic paragraph, you can perhaps discern what the attractions of White, past, present and future, might be.

The “geo” part of his work has, of course, a deep Scottish lineage. It goes back to James Hutton, regarded as the father of modern geology, who read the history of the planet in rock formations.

To borrow the title of Hutton’s great scientific work, White has his own “theory of the Earth”. It’s about how humans can refresh their perceptions, their very being, by opening their sensory channels to the environmental variety of the planet.

White was quoted on social media this week as having said: “I don’t think the attraction to lonely space, elemental conditions and basic stone is inhuman. I think it’s the essence of human being on Earth.”

The “poetics” part of geopoetics is how we express and manifest that wonder and awe. Yes, this might be letters of verse on a creamy page. This White excels at (though it’s something that many more of us are capable of than we usually think).

But for White, this “poiesis”, or act of creation, could just as easily take the form of an enterprise, or collective action.

The National: Galmisdale farm, Isle of Eigg.

The Christian philosopher (and land reform radical) Alastair McIntosh describes how White’s work inspired him and his comrades – especially in their successful drive to return ownership of the island of Eigg (above) to its community.

White’s poetic lines – “I’m a landowner myself after all/I’ve got twelve acres of white silence/up at the back of my skull” – were like a “power cable”, writes McIntosh, to him and his activists.

“They gave us a claim of right. A clean sheet of paper on which to write a different title deed. A claim that we, in our claim of right to freedom, are all the ‘owners’ of the land; or as I prefer to say, ‘landholders’. Landed power can lay its claim to no such charter …”

Alastair continues: “Kenneth’s poem became a white steed on which to ride into the fray, from which to perpetrate our tactic of buying Eigg cheaply through market spoiling. After all, what rich man would want to buy a holiday island stuffed with restless natives?”

Later, McIntosh brought White in to be a trustee of the Govan initiative GalGael, where boat-building and carpentry regenerates broken lives in that often tough part of Glasgow. Again, Alastair cites White’s geopoetry as inspiration:

A late afternoon in Govan

at the junction of the Clyde and the Kelvin

rain falling on sullen stone

floating on the dark, dank waters

one lone mute swan.

As a self-conscious “citizen of the world”, White is about more than symbolically hopeful swans on the River Clyde. Although, to be sure, he has expressed his aspirations for Scotland explicitly enough.

Norman Bissell, co-founder of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, sent me this passage from one of his later essays: “The new Europe should naturally (geographically) concern the island as a whole.

“But if Anglo-Britain continues to be so obstinately ignorant and so complacently myopic, then Scotland may quite simply secede from Britain, and not out of nationalism but out of Europeanism.”

The National: Scottish poet, writer and political activist Hugh MacDiarmid at home with pipe in August 1972.

White’s dying on the date of Hugh MacDiarmid’s (above) birthday (August 11) seems only confirmatory.

But it’s when White stands both On Scottish Ground (as one of his collections is titled) and also journeys globally (intellectually and physically) between West and East, North and South, that may bring us the most benefit.

As I often write in these pages, we are faced with what Gaia Vince calls a “nomad century”. An era where biosphere disruption will send billions northwards, as they flee their baked-out, flooded-out and unliveable homelands.

Vince often urges us to realise how natural and valuable – rather than aberrant and damaging – nomadism is to the human condition. Yet such a realisation is easier to advocate than to achieve.

White’s work is a Scottish resource that can help us make that shift. He verbally defended his PhD on “intellectual nomadism” in the mid-1960s against Gilles Deleuze – one of the 20th century’s most original philosophers. Deleuze was a great advocate of nomadism, as a challenge to established institutions and states everywhere.

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White’s work has a clear suggestion for how we might cope with a planet on the move. Which is that we should grant everyone the human right, from whatever culture, to find themselves exulting in the earth they are standing on.

Whether those feet have moved from red savannah to green heather – and whatever the stage they’re at in their journey. Welcoming the craggy specificity of the planet around and beneath you, wherever you find yourself, is the essence of geopoetics. This spirit could help our inclusive mood, as the climate-stranded come to our shores.

In an Edinburgh Review essay, White calls this mindset “the Great Residence”. This he opposes to the cosmopolitan hastiness of nomadologists such as Deleuze, who skate over the uniqueness of places. These are “men who leave a hotel and hop into a jet”.

One way we’ll do better than that, is to follow White’s curiosity about non-Western philosophies and mindsets. Geopoetics wants you to loosen the boundaries of your ego, as you expand your attention to your landscape and physical conditions. That’s not going to be easy for those of us planetary citizens that are consumerist and rationalistically minded.

Yet if such a shift from “ego to eco” isn’t beautiful, pleasing and stirring, it’s unlikely to happen. Kenneth White’s open and fluid writing is a great example of how it could appeal. As he writes in his epic poem, Scotia Deserta:

Let the images

go bright and fast

and the concepts be extravagant

(wild host to erratic guest)

that’s the only way

to say the coast

all the irregular reality

of the rocky sea-washed West

- For more on Kenneth White, visit