Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s recent book, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis. This captivating and challenging read urges the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.
The mind of the wild
In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.
The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”
Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.
Learning to die
In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:
To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.
Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:
Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.
The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!
Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it.
Find out more
James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entryand sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blakefilm project and one of the creative minds behind the Waterlight Project: both of whose websites I edit.
In a welcome return to our pages, poet Nancy Campbell reviews fellow poet (and ClimateCultures Member) Nick Drake’s new collection, Out of Range. These poems celebrate proximity and distance — spatial, temporal or emotional — to remark on the state we’re in. Written with poignancy, formal facility and intense honesty, they take the reader on a journey through known worlds and into unknown ones.
approximate Reading Time: 8minutes
Nick Drake has established a reputation for profound engagement with that trickiest of cultural endeavours, formulating a creative response to the climate crisis. Last summer saw the premier by London Symphonietta of Cave, an opera in which Drake’s libretto and Tansy Davies’ score relate a grieving father’s search for survival in a world devastated by climate change. Back in 2010 Drake was among the group of artists and scientists selected for the Cape Farewell voyage around the Svalbard archipelago; the resulting book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier bears witness to the effects of climate change on the polar ice. Increasingly, as the imminent consequences of sea level rise and species extinction become clear (not to mention human culpability) it is implausible to write of the natural world in isolation. Drake’s poems consider human nature, its ingenuity and artifice, our capacity for enacting violence on other humans as well as on the biosphere, whether actively or by omission. One of these works was enshrined in a permanent public art installation about Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, beneath a bridge in London’s Paddington Basin: Message from the Unseen World.
I imagine the cycle courier — the dazzling, zig-zagging star of Through the red light, the first poem in Drake’s new collection, “appearing from the primordial chaos / of the underpass … / not giving a flying fuck about red lights” — might have recently swung past Message from the Unseen World, heedless in his haste to the work’s continually shifting texts, its own unpredictable, algorithmic dynamics. The courier is destined to become a text too: it’s the poet who captures him, not a speed camera, before — like many other urban demi-gods in this electrifying collection — he passes ‘out of range’. Drake celebrates his outmanoeuvring of heavy gas-guzzling vehicles, his transgressive speed, before leading the reader on a book-long journey through known worlds and into unknown ones.
There is a devastating trio of Arctic poems (the polar ice, once seen, is not easily forgotten), but on the whole Drake turns his scrutiny on regions closer to home, from Achiltibue in the Highlands of Scotland to London’s East End. These may be familiar places, but Drake reveals afresh their ‘magic, mystery and wonder’, those qualities which the Romantic poet, mystic and mineralogist Novalis (1772-1801) once defined as the goal of the Romantic movement. In these poems Drake seems to share Novalis’s desire to awaken the reader: “to educate the senses, to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It is our everyday actions which need scrutiny in these times, being those which will destroy us.
Drake’s poems take a close and compassionate look at ordinary, sometimes disposable, objects that are too often taken for granted or scorned. Many have been created, cultivated or traded by humans — incandescent lightbulbs, a fatberg in the city’s sewers, peaches:
sunset red in their soft blue cardboard beds that safeguarded their journey from the trees … via the cargo belly of a 747
— Peaches for the Solstice.
The elegy for the fatberg (which is so graphic it is hard to read without gagging) is titled Stranger Thing, calling to mind Rilke’s Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), quiet works which W.H. Auden described in the New Republic as expressing ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols”. Auden continued: “While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” In Drake’s work there is scarcely a filament, a “hair’s breadth” between these dualities. This approach has interesting ramifications at the present moment, when material culture threatens to overwhelm us.
In Still Life: Plastic Water Bottle (used), the now-ubiquitous shape of the bottle takes over the poem. It is as if plastic particles have made their way into the poem, as insidiously as they have the waters of the world. The layout of the text emphasises how impossible the physical object is to destroy. The water bottle speaks, asks: “Why did you / make us in / your image?” The reader gathers that, in the bottle’s worldview, humans are gods — but gods who find their creation turning against them. There are hints of the exiled duke and sorcerer Prospero, who governs the seas and creates storms, in echoes of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Drake’s poem is most reminiscent of the work of another Romantic poet, John Keats, whose Ode on a Grecian Urn considered human achievement in creating a vessel that outlasted ages, that told a story of its times. Whereas Keats hymned eternal Beauty — “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” — Drake predicts eternal waste (unless an alternative ‘skin’ to plastic can be found?). Whereas Keats addressed the urn, it is Drake’s water bottle that addresses the reader, depriving the human of any voice or agency within the poem. In both poems, however, the enduring nature of the vessel becomes a means to meditate on human temporality.
The most haunting example of ‘the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred’ in this collection comes in Ollamalloni, a poem which describes the experience of a common Aztec ball game from the perspective of a priest who believes he is witnessing a religious ritual. (Written for the London Olympics 2012, it indirectly celebrates the capital on a cultural high, before the 2016 Referendum.) Throughout the collection, without anger or agenda, a picture of the city and a febrile wider world emerges. London’s various pleasures include dancing in gay clubs until 3 a.m., the comforting fluorescent glow of all-night stores, and people-watching in cafes at weekends — it’s a place in which, despite many inequalities, people at least have the right to love who they choose. But encounters between humans are rarely satisfying. The poet is more likely to interact with the whorl of hair at the back of stranger’s head, scrutinised while sitting on the top deck of a bus, than look into their eyes. The script of the street is a tragic monologue: the ‘raving statue’ of a begger (Maenad); a homeless man, venting his rage on being taken short and finding the public toilets closed (London Fields). In Night Bus, a man who is ‘keening’ and incomprehensible:
calling out lamentations to the empty street —
What words in what languages is he yelling across time zones and distances?
While some poems present uninhibited diatribes, others consider barriers to communication. In The Dancing Satyr, a bronze statue at the Royal Academy has been dredged up from the sea — a poignant forerunner of the plastic water bottle, perhaps. It is “resuscitated but refusing to answer our interrogations” and, like a warped digital device, “uttering a modem feedback / at a pitch too extreme for human ears to hear”.
Out of range
Communication across distance is a preoccupation — whether through the fine arts of the past or the obdurate and brilliant promise of technology. In the title poem, a mobile phone no longer works ‘out of range’. Failing to get a signal, Drake retreats to the “windowed coffin” of what might be “the last phone box on earth”. He speaks past the dead spiders in the handset, into an unseen place 5,000 miles distant, tapping into “rush-hour babble”. The ability to communicate at the vast range of a globalised society is necessary to facilitate our closest relationships — and the future.
The phone box might also be a Tardis, of course, although Drake is too subtle to say so — and this ambitious book doesn’t stop at the Earth’s atmosphere but takes the reader into outer space. The roads along which the cycle courier swoops are supplanted by a more vertiginous course. The furthest range in the collection is saved for the Voyager I spacecraft:
with the immortal gold LP
fixed on your side, coded for ancient technology, our message of the sounds of life on earth, all that we are or wish to seem –
— Life on Earth.
Voyager I carries a message that will have aged by the time it reaches its destination: “44,000 nightfall years / to the next star”. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, for the optimist there are two options for humanity’s future: “First, the exploration of space for alternative planets on which to live, and second, the positive use of artificial intelligence to improve our world.” The irony is that the technologies that characterise the Anthropocene, dependent on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals, have condemned human life, but also that — in the eyes of some thinkers — these same inventions now have the potential to save us too.
Technology facilitates connections between those who share a city (or planet, or solar system), between lovers, partners, friends, strangers, and those unknown generations who may inhabit a future world. They are present as a “delayed echo” (Out of Range). This convincing instinct for — not to put too fine a point upon it — love, mitigates grief at what is being lost. One poem, Send, returns to that by-now familiar anxiety about communication. The reader is relieved to discover that sending a text message will be less troublesome than the titular phone call. Initially, this gives every appearance of being a traditional sonnet, a love poem across time zones, with echoes of Shakespearean doubling in the lover’s observation of time differences: “my summer day’s your night”. In the fourteenth line — which in a sonnet would be the last — the narrator claims to hear voices in the cloud: “I know they say we love what we must lose.” But Drake does not permit such a mournful conclusion: “this poem will not have that ending”. Another quatrain follows, and no full stop.
Send, and other poems in this collection, aspires to connectivity rather than catharsis. Can our everyday actions rewrite the formal structures which surround us, Drake asks. Can we wrench fate around, and tell a different story to that which the satyr screams, as it dances “to Earth’s lost songs / in the radiant silence of the boundless dark”?
Find out more
Nancy Campbell is a writer and poet whose most recent book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, (published by Scribner UK, 2018) was reviewed for ClimateCultures by Sally Moss. Nancy has previously published a poetry collection, Disko Bay, and artists’ books, including The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet. Nancy is the current UK Canal Laureate, a role appointed by The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.
Out of Rangeis Nick Drake‘s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier(Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a Cape Farewell voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change.
You can read three of Nick’s poems from Out of Range in full as part of his own contribution to the ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects: Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb; Still life: Plastic water bottle (used); and Stranger Thing. (And, in the first post in that series, you can also find my own reflections on the record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft that is the subject of Nick’s title poem, Out of Range).
For more of Nick’s poetry, fiction and other work — including Message from the Unseen World, his tribute to Alan Turing located in Paddington Basin — see his ClimateCulturesDirectory entryand www.nickfdrake.com.
You can watch a Royal Academy video showing The Dancing Satyr and discussing its discovery in the seas off Sicily in the 1990s.
Filmmaker James Murray-White spent a winter break in Cumbria to edit footage for his film, Finding Blake, and he took time out for ClimateCultures to review Cornerstones. This new collection of writing explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.
The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.
As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.
As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.
Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.
Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.
There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.
On the borders of change
I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.
I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.
Find out more
James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entryand sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project, whose website I edit.
For my second personal offering in our new series, Gifts of Sound and Vision, I’ve chosen Earthrise. This is a series where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change. Earthrise is a recent film about a moment half a century ago that transformed our vision of the world and of what might be possible in this short historic episode, modern human civilisation.
approximate Reading Time: 3minutes
Fifty years ago, on 28th December 1968, three men returned to Earth after a six-day journey during which they became the first humans ever to escape the gravity of their home planet. They had slipped into deep space, entered the moon’s gravity and made ten orbits of that world to observe what people assumed one day might become a new base for interplanetary exploration.
As such, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first humans to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the first to see the Earth rising above the moon’s grey horizon. As this excellent 30-minute film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee shows, using archive footage from that 1968 Apollo 8 mission alongside present-day recollections from all three crew members, the Earth offered the only patch of colour they could see in all the universe. The deep black of space, countless sharp white stars, the moon’s grey endless plains and craters rolling on and on just 60 miles beneath their capsule — and the one white-blue-green-brown marble that emerged in front of them, over 240,000 miles away.
That thumb-sized ball was home, and the colour photo they took of that first Earthrise — an instinctive, spur-of-the-moment act and a wholly unplanned byproduct of their mission — had an immediate and deep impact on everyone who saw it after their return fifty years ago, just as the sight of distant home had a lasting impact on those three men.
The ‘whole Earth’ image became the emblem of a new environmental awareness, the icon of an emerging age, and the hope of those three astronauts that national boundaries and short-term, near horizon problems might somehow start to lose their fatal grip on our imaginations. They admit in this film to being disappointed that this hope has not been delivered on, yet.
In 1968, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 320 parts per million — already significantly above levels experienced by any human civilisation, along with the increases in global average atmospheric temperatures and sea levels that go with elevated CO2. 50 years later, our planet’s atmosphere is 410 ppm CO2 and this is still rising. The record-breaking temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidity, habitat destruction and species loss all also keep on rising.
50 years from now?
This is all uncharted territory, as was the space between Earth and our moon before 1968. The Apollo 8 crew’s expedition was a mission of firsts, and so is ours. They came back with a new way of seeing our world, and we also have to find our own and to deliver on the hope that Borman, Lovell and Anders found in a place that’s the furthest from home that any human had ever been or has been since. There is no other home.
It’s worth watching the film for the words of those three men then and now as much as for the images, and I’ve avoided quoting them here in the hope that you will go and watch it for yourself. But here is one to end with, which speaks to the power of imagination and of art of all kinds to trigger imagination at individual and collective scales, and to inspire new hope:
“The photograph itself was the thing that everybody liked. I mean it represented Apollo 8. And it could be almost like saying it was the fourth astronaut, because it was there and it did the job. One frame had showed exactly our existence.”
Find out more
Earthrise (2018) by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is available to view at the Global Oneness Project, of which Emmanual and Cleary Vaughan-Lee are directors. You can also download a series of school and university level discussion guides about the film, and their other projects.
You can find Time and Tide, my previous post for this series on the Gifts of Sound and Vision page, where future contributions will also be collected as part of our Curious Minds section.
For the latest ClimateCultures review, I look at Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. It’s an important and absorbing book — that was previously a ‘slam’ of artists and researchers, an exhibition, a workshop. The objects it shares with us offer a mirror test for our supposed ‘Age of Human’, and has conceptual links with our own A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
Objects have a power over the human mind. They live in the world we live in, yet open into others — worlds of imagination and of experience. And maybe this power increases with apparent distance, even while the objects remain close to hand: distant pasts and places, distant cultures, distant natures. Maybe even distant futures, ones we now must reimagine as radical departures from our own experience.
Objects have a place in the growing ClimateCultures archive, of course: our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects has already reached 27, offering its own imaginative range of surprising totems of human presence on the planet, a planet being reprocessed. And some of my strongest memories from TippingPoint events remain those small group discussions where we each brought objects and shared accounts of their personal significance within rapidly changing natural and social contexts. It always seems special to add our story of material encounters to the accumulation of all those other ‘small stories’ that make up and question larger narratives. Objects have voices too.
This impressive book allows many objects to speak to our imaginations of pasts, presents and futures in what we are beginning to recognise — haltingly, imperfectly and with much debate over the terms and even the name of this invention-discovery — as the Anthropocene. The Age of Human. Or the age of some humans at least: those busy undermining planetary stability, resilience and value; more hopefully, the coming age of other humans, those now excluded and undermined in this Age of Precarity but whose voices also ‘we’ must hear, learn from, change with. There’s no clear, honest way of removing the quote mark around ‘us’ in this age, of refusing to acknowledge the provisional status of our knowledge of who we are. As the editors remind us, “Objects, too, can disrupt a sense of human exceptionalism,” and it is far from simply a ‘human’ age.
Future Remains emerged from a “playful, performative space” — a ‘slam’ of artists and scientists to explore a Cabinet of Curiosities for this new age — and became an exhibition, a workshop and then a book. In all its guises and stages, it remains a provocation. What sort of new age is this; who and what produced and reproduces it; what is the nature of this world; what are its physical signs, wrapped up in nature-culture and available for us to think with, work on, act through?
In their preface, Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett warn us that objects demand caution as well as curiosity. While curiosity draws us outside ourselves — “can shake up our place in the world” — objects can also blind us to wider horizons, making either their exotic or their familiar worlds more absolute:
“Objects, then, can just as easily outshine as open up other worlds. The challenge is to ask not only what objects reveal but also what they hide. We need to take notice of less familiar things [to] entertain the possibility of other beings, other relations in the world, and other cosmologies not easily subsumed within the dominant tropes of Western science animated by one version of the Anthropocene.”
While it’s the fable-of-civilisational-progress version of the Anthropocene that the editors explicitly warn us to examine and hold up against other lights, it’s a useful caution against any singular, definitive story that the many contending Anthropocene labels seek to make the ‘official’ narrative. Curiosity, then, should remain our dominant mode of exploration, powered by humility in our lack of complete knowledge, just as in our lack of complete control.
Here, I’ve selected eight of the book’s entries.
Anthropocene in a Jar
On a family trip to the beach, Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller dug into the sand and attempted to answer their children’s question: “What causes the stripes?” They began to build an answer between them — a tale of “abstract earth processes … the moon’s tug on the sea, the wave’s tug on the sand and the shells” — trying to make it palpable to a child’s mind and their own as they continued digging.
Later, collecting samples in a jar,
“we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunnelling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains — things one could classify as ‘natural’. And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with toes in the sand — things one could classify as ‘human.’ … Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”
The Age of Man
Through Plowshare, a 1970s Atomic Energy Commission film, Joseph Masco unpicks the grand narrative of the Great Acceleration: the exponential age of plenty we began to rapidly carve out after the Second World War. Powered by Enlightenment dreams of human mastery of nature, the perfectibility of human nature, Plowshare illustrates how the splitting of the atom seemed to “supercharge this imaginary … singling the imminent arrival of a superabundance, promising continuing breakthroughs in health, energy, and consumer economy.” This dream
“… if it did not end in the fiery flash of nuclear war, would push relentlessly and inevitably toward a perfected capitalist society. This was the first ‘age of man’ — a nuclear-powered fantasy that miraculously transformed an unprecedented destructive force into the expectation of a world without limits … Pause, just for a moment, to consider the intoxicating rush of this enterprise, the creative energy of making things that work on this kind of scale, of believing that people could finally shape reality rather than merely submit to it.”
Plowshare recasts the military legacy of nuclear explosions, making them weapons not against other humans but against the real enemy: nature. ‘Man’ reshaping “the land in dimensions never before possible … as he struggles against the geography nature has pitted against him.” Want to tear more wealth from deep time and deep rock? To blast new canals between oceans? Nuclear bangs are the way to go. When it comes to nature, war is peace.
Marine Animal Satellite Tags
Nils Hanwahr offers our gaze a much more benign technology — one that’s ubiquitous in our TV wildlife shows, refashioning our understanding of what and where ‘wildlife’ is, how it’s faring across the planet. Satellite tags are invaluable for the data they provide on animals in seas, land and air, logging continuous intelligence on their position, behaviour and environment. Bringing us closer to nature, though a nature wholly mediated through that technology, and living in the imagination rather than experience. And what of the tagged animals?
“Tagging a marine animal with a high-tech device endows the creature with a kind of agency that could only arise in the Anthropocene … Agency only registers on our human scale by leaving a trace and in the twenty-first century that means registering life forms and environments as digital data. We incorporate remote environments into our digital representations of nature … Onemight wonder if turning an animal into a data point does not itself entail an act of violent reduction into a digital infrastructure.”
Cryogenic Freezer Box
While some living beings are reduced to datapoints in digital infrastructures, other once-living beings become frozen species in DNA banks. Elizabeth Hennessy inspects our drive to preserve the world’s biodiversity in the face of our sixth mass-extinction event. “A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life.” It’s a ‘natural’ progression, as the “urge to collect has been integral to the production of Western knowledge of the natural world since the sixteenth century when Europeans brought home curiosities during an age of imperial exploration.” But this isn’t just about protecting knowledge (whose? for whom?); it’s also about asupposed insurance policy for the planet.
“Environmentalists position human agency as having a dual role in the Anthropocene — both culprit of environmental destruction and potential saviour of lost life. Cryogenic freezer boxes encapsulate both regret for biodiversity loss and faith in science and technology to deliver life from the shambles of massive environmental crisis.”
Hennessy is not the only Future Remains contributor to invoke, with irony, the words of arch techno-optimist Stewart Brand, that “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” But, she asks:
“Who gets to ‘play god’? Faced with climate change, rising oceans, and other Anthropocene crises, how do these ‘gods’ choose who, or what, should be saved? And if scientists in elite laboratories were able to revive extinct species, where in the world would these animals belong once they left the safe haven of the archive?”
The Monkey Wrench
Daegan Miller’s contribution is an emblem of mass labour in the hands of the individual Anthropocene worker. In his hands, the humble monkey wrench becomes a tool to “get a grip on the world.”
“Once used everywhere lithe human muscle struggled against iron intransigence, the monkey wrench had a hand in building the entire towering, now tottering mechanical skeleton of the industrialised, modern world. [It] now allows us … to consider inequality — whose labour built the Anthropocene? Whose labour laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shovelled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? … And held once again in a warm human hand, the wrench confronts us: who profited from its work, and who has paid the costs?”
The Germantown Calico Quilt
Bethany Wiggins chooses a commemorative item from 1820s Pennsylvania: a cotton quilt stitched to record both the image of a French hero of America’s revolution against the British, and the treaty with the Native Americans that founded Philadelphia. If revolutionary wars are sudden (if long-developing) acts of violence, the longer processes of migration, colonialism and control of nature and culture are slow, hidden expressions of the same violent forces.
“Such disasters’ creep can be hard to perceive; their toll spans generations and continents. On a local, human scale, they can be difficult to witness … To make Anthropocene violence legible requires a setting simultaneously local and global, and it urges a historical frame extending at least to 1492. But the temporality of the Anthropocene is not only slow. It is also fast, and its pace is always accelerating … The story of the Anthropocene is thus double both temporally and geographically. Its places are always dislocated, at once local and global; its times are ever out of joint, both fast and slow.”
The quilt’s “layers recall geologic strata” and its panels display “the primal scene of the Anthropocene: fast three-masted sailing ships … hint at the new maritime technologies that moved humans and other animal species, plants, and manufactures across the Atlantic world and across the globe.” But, in recasting Columbus in the guise of the virtuous Quaker John Penn, the quilt erases those technologies that don’t suit its narrative: the guns and the slave economy.
Davies Creek Road painting
Robert Emmett senses that “we need emotionally powerful works of art that reorganise our structures of feeling around these transformations in environment and society.” And part of that need is to counter the momentum of Anthropocene narrative that assume continued, planned and perfected ideologies of human mastery. Emmett selects Trish Carroll and Mandy Martin’s painting, Davies Creek Road, as one counter to a ‘Big Dam Theory of Global Eco-Modernity.’
“The storied landscape in Carroll and Martin’s canvas, layered over with the figure of the goanna lizard in X-ray style, offers texture and meaning where the Australian government sees only a blank slate for a proposed dam. Before the Anthropocene becomes a single perspective, story, or agenda, it can still be used to name a raft of forces that resists a simple ending.”
As with the other objects in this volume, Davies Creek Road can help us to “steer the conversation in different directions [to] make a better environmental future from the predicaments of being just humans…”
Sverker Sörlin’s object comes with its own poetic reflection. Drawing on the ‘mirror test’ in psychology — “a check of whether you have an idea of who you are or, perhaps, that you are at all” — Sörlin suggests the Anthropocene as the ultimate, species-level mirror test. As individuals, humans pass the test at around eighteen months, and we know that elephants, apes, magpies and some other animals also recognise themselves as selves.
“Seeing ourselves in the Anthropocene mirror we stand a slightly different test. Not only: do I realise that I am there? But: do I realise that I am part of something larger? Do I figure what this larger something might be?”
The mirror in the exhibition is both physical object — at once the everyday experience of watching yourself and making an exhibit of yourself — and metaphor; the poem and video reflect on “human comedy, showing a few members, a small fragment of the collective Anthropos that the Anthropocene presupposes.” Together, these mirror acts shatter both individualising and globalising narratives of who we are, what we’re engaged in and how this age unfolds. “This is not just one world where a separate humanity impacts on everything nonhuman but a world of increasing entanglements across scales and species and forms of being in the world and thus a world of multiple becomings.”
The mirror is a choice. Of surface, of now and just now. Of what is underneath, how we became us, how we became insides, too. How we became divided already in the Pleistocene.
As Elizabeth Hennessy contemplates with her cryogenic freezer box, “the task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction …
“Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complicated task: recognising the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending the limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”
Daegan Miller reminds us that the Anthropocene may be the end of many things. It should be “the end of a distinctly human past plotted against a static, inert natural world … But perhaps this is a good thing, for the earth, it bears repeating, is not in our hands; only our tools are. And tools are nothing if not the possibilities of a new future made material.”
Robert Emmett suggests that each of us might construct our own Anthropocene cabinets of curiosities: “perhaps do so in communities as ‘little free libraries,’ where the libraries also contain seeds, specimens, and directions for reanimating forms of extinct life.” Might they also be “an aesthetic survival kit, potent dream of a shareable planetary society that prevented numbness to loss?”
Sverker Sorlin’s own question, “Who are the mirrored ones?” is central to the Anthropocene: to how we understand and name it, how we recognise the ‘we’ that it names, how each person owns and experiences it, albeit differently and with different expectations of us. Part of the power that objects have is the power to serve as ‘boundary objects’: things which have ‘plasticity’, holding different features and meanings for different people but retaining enough common identity that they can help broker conversations, holding disparate groups together for deliberations of where and how to proceed.
And the curation of objects amplifies this power, modifies it. As Libby Robins says of the collective, “They stack and array, they align and contrast. Each object is a counterpoint to other objects, in conversations and contradistinction. Objects in museums have always carried stories across generations and places, drawing out memories of other times.”
And memories of other futures? We mirrored ones need to look, to talk and act, to reflect that the Anthropocene, the Age of the More-than-Human, is still open for multiple stories. Stories of change.
“The mirror is a test of hope.”
Find out more
Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett, is published by theUniversity of Chicago Press(2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work attimflach.com.
You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’sSnargeand Jared Farmer’sTechnofossil.
And you can explore all 27 of the objects that ClimateCultures Members have contributed so far to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects in ourCurious Mindssection. I’ve also posted a list of these tomy small blog.