Writer Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.
710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes
Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.
In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.
An Arctic outpost
After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.
As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.
First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.
Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.
I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.
When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.
In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.
It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.
At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.
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With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.
Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.
2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes
Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.
I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.
To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.
Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.
So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.
A multidisciplinary science
I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.
This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.
I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.
What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.
A biographical history of climate science
As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.
There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.
My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.
We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.
In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.
The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.
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Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”
In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men.
Artist Hanien Conradie discusses a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with Devon’s River Dart and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge. Work that seeks more reciprocal relationships with the natural world.
2,450 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes + 3 minutes video
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe: I met Hanien Conradie when she gave a presentation at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium at Dartington Hall in Devon, in June 2018. Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, recounted the unique relationship she had built with the clay of the Hartebees River in Worcester, South Africa: “the same clay my mother played with as a child.” Her talk also featured a premiere of a film made with fellow artist, Margaret LeJeune, showing Hanien’s performance in the Dart, the local river at Dartington, during both artists’ residencies there just before Liquidscapes.
This post, which begins with that film, Dart, is based on an email conversation we had in September 2019, after Hanien had been able to share the film following its premiere in South Africa.
Your film has three phases, for me: the reading of Eugene Marais’s poem Diep Rivier in the original Afrikaans; the rereading of it in English; and the silence in between. For an English-only viewer, the unknowability of the original reading is powerful, and forces me to hear the striking beauty of the sound of the words alone, in your voice. What for you is the value of the silence between the two languages?
The performance in the river began as I wrote the Afrikaans version of the poem onto the river’s surface. It was a way to introduce my ancestry and me to the river. What happened in that moment was that I became very emotional.
Firstly, I had just come from a severe drought in Cape Town where we had a daily ration of 50 litres of water. Being in such an expanse of water after the scarcity was an overwhelming relief.
Secondly, I had a painful ancestral history with England. The British Empire and Afrikaners fought each other between 1899 and 1902 during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers fought a guerrilla war and the men gathered their supplies from Afrikaner homesteads and farms. As part of what was referred to as the ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the British army burnt down Afrikaner farms, killed their livestock and put the surviving women and children in concentration camps. About 30,000 Afrikaners died of exposure, starvation and disease in these camps. Most of the dead were children. As a child born about 70 years later, I heard many of the elderly people speaking in bitter ways about the British. The rift between English and Afrikaner South Africans could still be felt as children from both cultures harassed each other with hate speech during my years of schooling.
I studied in English, had made many English friends and my life partner is British. I believed that this history was not really a part of my personal pain anymore. However when I entered this English river and spoke this very old Afrikaans poem (written about 10 years after the war), I was surprised to find myself sobbing. In the water of this dark river pain older than my life years surfaced and came to a place of peace; the river and I let all the hatred flow to the ocean and I allowed love to be born again.
I did not plan the silence between the two languages consciously, but in hindsight I believe it communicates a transformation that happened within me and hopefully is still rippling out into the world I live in. The silence together with the rippling effect that I, a mere speck, have on the environment, speaks volumes about the power of one individual to heal communal pain.
Joyful dance with the river
The film itself, of course, is continuous and, superficially, seems unchanged across the three different phases. But the drone pulls out further overhead, and then comes back in, and your movements on the water — the drawing on its surface — change also. Our view of you — in close up in the water and then in long shot with the water and then closing in again — is always literally an overview, from a different plane (place) to your own experience in and with the water. That’s only possible through collaboration with another artist. Was that viewpoint, that collaboration, always intended for your work here? Or did it emerge from a process of working with the river beforehand?
You are quite right to point out that the experience of the viewer and my experience in the river is substantially different. That is why this film is a full collaboration between the American artist, Margaret LeJeune, and myself. She managed to capture the poetry of the moment in a meaningful way; which is an artwork and skill in itself.
After I performed the ritual of writing the poem in the water I felt light and elated, and in a powerful but prayerful mode. I started beating and creating circles on the surface of the water. I lost my sense of self in this joyful dance with the river. Thus I failed to notice Margaret, who was quietly observing me from the river’s bank. As I emerged from the river she requested to film me with her drone. So, the next day we came back to the river and I re-enacted my ritual.
The beauty of our collaboration was there was very little planning, discussion or editing to this documentation. We had a subtle attunement to each other that enabled the transmission of the feeling of the ritual to the viewer. Margaret and I previously discussed our overwhelming nostalgia toward the European natural world. We both come from places that were colonised by our European ancestors. I sensed that we both struggle with feelings of displacement, colonial guilt and a search for belonging. It was Margaret who saw something that I as the performer couldn’t see: the far-reaching ripples I was creating. It was through her poetic perspective that the documentation of the performance obtained its power.
A loss of place
You originally showed the film at the Liquidscapes symposium very soon after making it, and your talk there focused on an experience revisiting a river and farm with your mother, taking her back to her childhood home. Your experiences of that river up to then were through her memories, which ‘became mythological stories’, but her return to the farm and the river with you proved to be depressing. It seems to have been an experience of erasure — of the life of the land and of the river, and even of the water’s sound that had been so strong in your mother’s experience and memory. Maybe even of memory itself, as something pure. It seems that the land’s natural state — and then its later much-altered state, of your mother’s experience — was ephemeral, whereas in your film it is your signature on the river, your drawing in it, which is ephemeral, although deep.
My talk at Liquidscapes told the story of the damaged South African river from the perspective of a person of a hybridised European culture (Afrikaans culture). I weave a tale out of observations in the current natural world and past memories in an attempt to show the inextricable connection between nature and culture; how nature reflects culture and how a dislocated culture can create a loss of place.
The nationalist Afrikaner culture of my mother’s childhood had the reputation that it represented people of the soil; ‘boere’ (farmers) who loved nature as pastoralists. On closer inspection however, I realised that these memories of my mother’s were created within a context where the European culture and its crops were imposed onto the indigenous environment. This lack of understanding of the functioning of indigenous natural ecosystems has resulted in tremendous ecological damage and loss of indigenous fauna, flora, cultural knowledge systems and the loss of the river that once roared through the land. Like the sound of the river, my mother’s childhood culture has disappeared.
Today Afrikaner culture is in a process of mutation to an unknown end. The question I sit with is how do I enable restoration and healing to these damaged places? How do I find another way to relate to the natural world that is reciprocal; that understands human beings as an aspect of this living community of beings?
My ritual in the River Dart was an attempt to find an answer for this new way of relating. The writer of the poem, Eugene Marais, had a very unique way of relating to the natural world. As a fellow Afrikaner, I call on his wisdom through reciting his words.
So yes, there is something ephemeral in my experiences with both of these rivers. And perhaps that is invoked by the nature of rivers as signifiers of the passing of time. Even though my ‘drawings’ on the surface of the river are ephemeral, their impact reverberates through my life as I actively work on transforming my personal culture to meet the natural world in a very different way to my ancestors. There is thus something that is infinitely rippling out from these ephemeral experiences that I hope will lead to transformation.
The response of the natural world
You wrote in your blog post retelling your encounter with the Breede River, “My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss.” There you did this by meeting with local people and experts who could help you see what the natural and indigenous state of the river might have been, before European settlement. Working later on the Dart, was there also a feeling of a landscape of loss? I wonder how that place seemed to you as a new visitor and as you immersed yourself in it and in the work?
In my work with places where loss and damage is so severe that nothing seems to remain that holds the ancient knowledge of the place, I try work with the elements that are present such as the earth of the dry river or in this case the water of the river. When I encountered the River Dart, I was initially completely seduced by the expanse of water because it was lacking in the place I came from. As I got to know it better and read its history I realised that it is suffering its own losses and damage. If we as humans can start seeing bodies of water as entities with their own life and rights, I think these problems can be solved.
Similarly to my experience with the clay of the dry river, I found through relating to the River Dart, a great generosity coming from the natural world. I would have thought that like humans, the natural world would shut itself down and stop communicating with those who harm it. It has however been my experience that by earnestly and as honestly as possible communicating with natural entities such as rivers, I have gained much insight, humility and healing.
In your account of working with the Breede and its clay, you found it did not behave as you expected. Was this also true in the Dart?
I remember when I first entered the River Dart I sat quietly in the water looking out over the landscape and I listened attentively to ‘hear’ the river speak. After being still for a substantial time, the sceptic in me said ‘this river is not going to relate to you, you are wasting your time.’ Discouraged, I turned my gaze down to my body that was half-submerged in the water. I noticed that the silt of the river had settled like dust on my skin, tracing every hair and the curve of my body; I noticed that the little minnows were nibbling the skin of my feet. I was reminded again, that we are inextricably part of nature; that the separatist way we think about the natural world is what causes our incapacity to ‘hear’.
In terms of my performance, the idea was to capture the white foam lines made through ‘drawing’ with sticks on the surface of the dark black water. It was only because we had the overhead perspective of the drone that we could see the immense impact of my ‘drawings’ as they rippled out into a sphere far greater than the speck that was my body. Again, I was surprised with the far more complex outcome of my simple initial intention. Similarly to the experience with the river clay, I offered some of my energy and the natural world responded with a depth of wisdom I couldn’t have fathomed on my own.
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Dart, the film Hanien and Margaret LeJeune created in the River Dart, was first shown at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in June 2018, following their residencies with the River Dart for The Ephemeral River, a Global Nomadic Art Project sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Art and The Natural World (CCANW) and Science Walden / UNIST. The film was then shown as part of Raaswater (‘Raging Waters’), Hanien’s exhibition at Circa Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2019.
You can read a precis of Hanien’s paper to the Liquidscapes symposium at her blog post The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River. Here, she describes her work in the clay of the Breede River Valley following her visit to ‘Raaswater’ there with her mother, and the inspiration she takes from the writing of deep ecologist and ecophilosopher Arne Naess on ideas of place.
You can also explore the work of American artist Margaret LeJeune, including Evidence of the Dart, a selection of images Margaret created during her own residency at The Ephemeral River. “Our goal was to create work inspired by notions of ephemerality and the landscape of the River Dart.”
Eugène Nielen Marais (1871-36) was an innovative Afrikaans writer who had studied medicine and law and later investigated nature in the Waterberg area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. You can explore some of his poetry in Afrikaans (and some translations into English) at Poem Hunter.
Liquidscapes, a book of essays, poetry and images reflecting the Liquidscapes international symposium at Dartington Hall in June 2018 is published by art.earth, edited by Richard Povall. The book includes Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River.