“The Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you?”
Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
From the here and now …
I’d booked ahead for a B&B, so my only task here was to trawl leaflets and maps and get some local tips. Although it was the Easter holidays and as busy as I’d expected, two advisers were free, chatting behind the counter. Both turned to help me as I approached.
“I’d like to see the Scallop,” I said. “I know it’s on the beach; which direction from here?”
I’d not expected this to open up an argument in a Tourist Information Centre, even a good-humoured one. But, smiling, the woman immediately responded.
”Oh, don’t start your visit with that. It’s very unpopular around here!”
I’d hardly had time to wonder if this was an unusual tack from someone paid to promote the local sights when the man butted in, equally cheery.
“Don’t listen! Lots of people love it, and not just tourists. I think it’s wonderful.”
It was maybe unwise to reveal that Maggi Hambling’s famous sculpture was the main reason I was visiting the town, or that I’d heard it had helped “put Aldeburgh on the map”, but I think I said something along those lines. I’d already heard that this very public artwork had divided opinion quite starkly; that was part of its attraction for me, although from photographs I already knew which camp I was going to be in. As I discovered, however, the photographs don’t do Scallop justice. Its setting does (and is repaid in kind). Being in its presence was to experience very direct communication with both environment and history, and an unsettling encounter with the future.
Aldeburgh, like many Suffolk coastal settlements, has been disappearing from the map for centuries. On my way from Tourist Centre to Scallop that morning in 2007, I also had my first encounter with the town’s 16th century Moot Hall. Once both the geographical and political centre of the town, this is now right up against the beach. All the streets and buildings on its eastern side have long gone, the sea moving in by stages over the centuries. Where Maggi Hambling’s massive, 4 metre high stainless steel seashell stands might once have been fields; now it’s shingle.
Aldeburgh is famous as the home of composer Benjamin Britten and the annual music festival he founded there in 1948. Scallop, a tribute to him and his legacy, is also testimony to coastal changes that have sculpted Aldeburgh. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman, the deaths of his apprentices at sea and his own stormy fate. It’s based on a 19th century poem cycle, The Borough, by George Crabbe. Carved into the giant metal shell – actually cut right through it, so the sky writes the words through the absence within the solid matter – is one line from the opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Every time I see these words on my visits to Scallop or in my photographs of it, it has the same cold-heat effect on my scalp.
The coast-eroding waters have taken so many lives, but still we are here. Part of the flux, and subject to it, we’re drowned in a natural history that’s also, increasingly, made by our species. The fears and anxieties that coastal change brings can split communities from each other and from the institutions charged with planning for the impacts of future change: landowners, heritage bodies, councils, coastal agencies, government departments. The divided response to Scallop somehow exemplifies this ever-present potential for conflict over our local places, and (evoked in the words cut through solid matter) conflict over our national responses to refugees from climate impacts around the world.
‘For Maggi Hambling, the phrase has universal significance: “”We all have voices inside us all the time, whether we’re awake or asleep.” She wants those visiting Scallop to “contemplate the horizon and the movement of the waves, and have a conversation not only with the sea but also with themselves. To listen to their own voices.”‘ – Text on Scallop from website of the Britten-Pears Foundation
Scallop therefore continues to resonate, ten years on from my first encounter. We’re able to experience the lives of others in distant times or places – to ‘undrown’ and hear their voices – through our inner voices and empathies.
Through the Great Acceleration
When did the Anthropocene begin? The candidates for ‘trigger point’ cover such a broad expanse of our species’ time – from Neolithic Revolution 8,000 years ago to Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and its Great Acceleration in the 20th century, to the widespread nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War – that we have the luxury of choosing our own personal start-point. My choice goes back to the early 17th century: the onset of significant European expansion around the world and the scale of species changes this brought. The diversity of plants, animals and microbes introduced ‘over there’ or brought back ‘home’ — and the species lost – had direct and permanent impacts on humans and others across entire continents, as future archaeologists will know even if the historical accounts we have don’t survive.
But my chosen object for ‘Anthropocene Past’ doesn’t date from so long ago. The first technology for recording sound was the phonautograph, patented in 1857. Although its recordings could not be played back, an 1860 phonautogram of Au Clair de La Lune was finally heard for the first time in 2008. I’m intrigued that this first replay of the first recording leapfrogged the entire 20th century; the century that made mass recording and consumption of sounds possible and enabled cultural forms that have enriched billions of lives over that time. As with other technologies of capitalism’s Great Acceleration, this benefit comes at its own costs in materials, habitats, energy, waste and pollution. It possibly facilitates other impacts and makes it easier to ignore them: with so much recorded sound within instant reach, not only does it add to the incessant ‘anthrophony’ surrounding us; it masks the erosion of the remaining ‘biophony’, seemingly ‘compensating’ us (but not the other species) for that loss. For me, this complex mix of pluses and minuses hints at the wider Wicked Problem of the Anthropocene.
And my actual object? In 1945 British engineer Marie Killick patented Sapphox, the first truly reusable stylus for playing gramophone records. The innovation of a bevelled flat with sapphire tip made it possible to ride the groove without wearing away either the record surface or the stylus itself. Before this, the gramophone stylus was essentially a ‘one use’ technology that soon became unusable as it wore away. Now a disposable item became a lasting one, produced far superior sound quality and was safer to use with the discs. This must have been part of what made the mass production and enjoyment of records possible after the Second World War. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been possible without it! But modern audio technologies, including records, cassettes, CDs and mp3s, have played their part in spreading not only music and spoken word but also the learning of languages and enjoyment of natural soundscapes from around the world, and from the past. Sapphox represents this progress, but also some of the pitfalls of the age.
I’m unavoidably biased in my choice, however; Marie Killick was my grandmother. I never met her. Born in 1914, Marie died the year I was born, 1964. Her patent was infringed and, although she won a famous court case, the infringement and the battle for justice left her impoverished and in ill health. After many years of dodgy dealings by her industrial opponents, she was forced into bankruptcy before the damages from her court victory could be awarded. ‘My’ object for our ‘Anthropocene Past’ therefore has many nuanced associations with my own life as well with the stories of the unfolding Age of Human.
And into the dark
My choice of ‘Anthropocene Future’ object perhaps seems to bend a rule, because the thing itself is current, not something originating in the future. But I’m imagining it at some future time, an uncertain number of decades or centuries away, and at barely imaginable distances from where it started. Already, it’s so remote that for almost all of the tiny proportion of humanity that’s even aware of it, it’s practically an object only of our imaginations.
In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on journeys that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. 40 years on, Voyager 1 has passed that particular environmental boundary and is headed on into deep space and deep time. Voyager 2, not far behind, is yet to emerge from the outer edges of the heliosphere, where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.
Both Voyagers carry a specially commissioned gold-plated gramophone record and a stylus (descendant of sorts of Sapphox), in the hope that if any extraterrestrials ever encounter it they might decode the instructions and play the sounds and images of Earth, human and more-than-human.
“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist & member of the Voyager team
Or perhaps the aliens will just eat it. But in a sense it’s human thought that has gone with the lifeless spacecraft, and maybe there are other thoughts out there that can connect with it, thousands of years from now, light-years from here. Will we still be here, then? Will the other species captured on the discs?
The future I’m imagining for the Golden Records is not an alien discovery, or what birdsong and human voices might mean to them, but a future where those recorded sounds are the last to escape from Earth. Not because of a final holocaust or natural cataclysm that might wipe us out, but because at some point humanity might well switch off the technology that has indiscriminately been broadcasting our signals into the universe. Signals that were only ever intended for us – radio and TV shows and adverts from the Great Acceleration – have been radiating outwards for the past 70 years, ever since Earth went ‘radio bright’. For everything else out there (and down here), our radio signals are just another form of pollution. At some time, when inefficient technology is superseded, this expanding signal sphere will start to hollow out at its core and a second, more subdued sphere of more-or-less radio silence will grow outwards into the polluted zone. Our radio brightness will go dark again. No doubt by then we’ll have new, more interesting ways of making our presence known. But at the moment that the inner surface of the old radio sphere passes the two probes, the Voyager Golden Records will for the first time be surrounded by an unhuman quiet, and the discs will remain to be decoded.
“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – President Jimmy Carter’s printed message on the Voyager spacecraft.
An Anthropocene timeline
I didn’t expect to pick three objects linked by sound. But the technologies for capturing the sounds of different cultures and times, and mixing these into a new, global mesh of music and learning; a seashell – long used by human ears to imagine a distant sea, and now also the voices of those who will not be drowned; the real voices of people and species frozen in time and cast off into the ultimate deeps; the fading echoes of human technologies broadcasting to the universe; these pick up one small thread among an infinity of possible timelines from whenever the stories of the Anthropocene began to wherever they go.
Find out more:
A Sound Revolution – By Cynthia Killick: a personal history of Marie Killick, her life and invention of Sapphox, her struggle and legacy.
Mega Invention 6 – The place of Sapphox in the history of inventions?
The Phonautograph – The history of the first known sound recording device. This article also has a sound file of the first phonautogram recording to be played back; although it maybe sounds more like a disgruntled bee than a human reading Au Clair de la Lune, it’s still remarkable to hear a voice from 1860.
Aldeburgh Museum at the Moot Hall – The history of Aldeburgh
Maggi Hambling – her site and her work
Voyager 1 & 2 Missions – The history of the NASA mission, its discoveries and ongoing journey.
Voyager Golden Records – What is on those records?