A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

Walking the Winds: Mistral

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, Where the Wild Winds Are, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Our final extract comes from Nick's journey down France’s Rhône Valley on the trail of the Mistral - a name derived from the Latin 'magistralis', or Masterly. The Mistral is the ‘wind of madness’ or ‘idiot wind’ that inspired and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.
The clear light of the Mistral in the Plain of the Crau, southern France.
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://www.nickhuntscrutiny.com

‘There is a town north-west of here called Aubenas, deeper in Ardèche. The old people say that until fifteen years ago, they had never known Mistral. Now it blows there frequently, very strong, only in the last two decades. No one knows why.’ 

This was not the first time I’d heard of winds changing their patterns – in Croatia people had argued incessantly over whether the Bora was stronger or weaker than before – but it was a topic I had mostly steered clear of. The dizzying complexity of meteorological science had been impressed on me early on, and statements like ‘the winds are changing’ are impossible to back up without meticulous data and computer modelling. Anecdotal evidence is equally dodgy territory, because people’s memories of what the wind was like fifty years ago, or twenty, or two, relies on their subjective state, which can change as dramatically as the winds they are trying to remember. As every poet knows, the boundary between weather and mood is infinitely porous.

However, it seems clear enough that if Europe’s climate is changing, the time-worn pathways of its winds eventually will too. If the climate changes the temperature changes, which means the atmospheric pressure changes; if the atmospheric pressure changes air will be forced along different routes, adapting to environmental shifts as species do. In fifty or a hundred years perhaps the Mistral will have migrated to the east or west, rendering those blank north-facing walls obsolete technology. Perhaps the Helm will be displaced from its redoubt on Cross Fell – the demons finally exorcised for good – and the Bora, Foehn, Tramontana and Bise channelled into different territories, like climate refugees.

Viviers, it turned out, was a fitting place for such thoughts: a local legend warns of the perils of the winds changing their patterns. According to this origin myth the Mistral rises not far from here, in an area of marsh, pouring through the open mouth of an enormous cave. After years of suffering, the people living in its path devised a method of stifling it; they constructed a great wooden door, reinforced with iron bands, and nailed it swiftly into place to take the wind by surprise. The Masterly howled its discontent, cursing and threatening, but was trapped inside the rock with no hope of escape.

That winter was the mildest the Rhône Valley had ever known, untroubled by frost or snow, and the people were glad of what they’d done. When summer came, however, everything started to go wrong. The air was humid and unhealthy, causing sickness and disease. With no wind to dry the fields the grass grew lank, the ground became boggy and the crops developed mould; the countryside sweltered, and was plagued by insects. Unable to bear these conditions any longer the people decided to free the wind, nominating the nearest village to prise open the door. Before they did so, the locals made the Mistral promise to behave more gently, to stop flattening their crops and tearing down their barns. The Mistral kept its word, but – like any deal with the devil – acted to the letter rather than the spirit of the pact, sparing the immediate environs but not the countryside beyond; once released it howled to the south, frustrated from its captivity, and raged with a violence even greater than before. The moral of this environmental fable is very clear: don’t mess with forces you don’t understand. The cold north wind, for all its discomfort, brings blessings to the land.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

Questioning boundaries? Space for creative thinking... 

"Nick ends his series of excerpts with thoughts about changes in Europe's winds - and the 'infinitely porous' boundary between weather and mood. How might we construct maps of a future Europe illustrated not by our natural or political boundaries changing with its climate but by the altered moods of its peoples and places'?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

 

Walking the Winds: Foehn

— approx reading time: 2 minutes

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, 'Where the Wild Winds Are', tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Nick's fourth extract for ClimateCultures comes from his  journey through Switzerland in pursuit of the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn, which brings clear skies and wildfires – as well as insomnia, nosebleeds, anxiety and depression – to the Alpine valleys as winter turns to spring.

Stepping outside was like being plunged into a warm, stormy sea. Channelled, diverted and rebuffed by the complexities of the slopes, the Foehn’s southerly flow was confused, broken into conflicting currents that rushed nervously against one another, so that one moment I was standing still and the next propelled alarmingly forward at speeds I could hardly control. The cable car was grounded, its gantry and trembling wires caught in one unending scream; the only alternative route was the three-hour trail down the mountain. The forest was a static roar, and the pines bent like rubber with the impact of each gust. When the world emerged below, it looked as if layers had been removed to reveal it for the first time.

A Foehn-clear day in Altdorf, Switzerland.
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://www.nickhuntscrutiny.com/

The surrounding mountains had jumped closer, dabbed with Tippex-white snow, each crease and ripple illuminated to a hyperreal degree. The rooftops of Altdorf were so defined it was like looking through a telescope: every chimney, turret and tile had been tuned to perfect focus, giving everything an oddly computer-generated quality. Descending to the windswept town was like turning a dial and zooming in, the picture growing more precise with each step.

Loud with sunshine, bright with wind, Altdorf was a different town from the rain-streaked place I had left. The temperature had leapt ten degrees and warm air coursed the streets, flapping the shirtsleeves of gossiping elders, hurling the water from orderly fountains and driving tornadoes of leaves through the lanes. The keys, crowns and pretzels of ironwork shop-signs swung madly over doorways, and woodcock feathers vibrated in the brims of Alpine hats.

There was only one direction: blossom, leaves, litter, dust and plastic bags all chased north, and the clothes on washing lines had turned to weather vanes. I followed this flurried migration back to Flüelen and the lake, where the water had turned an unreal blue, flecked with magnesium flares. A steady procession of white horses roared offshore in repetitive ranks, divisions of cavalry on the move; on the quayside an elderly man sat watching the waves, wind-bathing.

The energy overwhelmed my senses, made me drunk with it. With the  Foehn’s encouraging hand at my back I fairly flew along the trail, under the Ober Axen cliffs, through a tunnel in the rock where the air was funnelled so intensely it forced me into a clumsy jog, and soon I was back beside the lakeside chapel at Tellsplatte. Soon after that the black bull of Uri was replaced by a white cross on red: I had entered the canton of Schwyz, which gave Switzerland – Schwyzerland – its flag, and its name.


Next week, in our final excerpt, Nick shares his experience on the trail of the ‘idiot wind’ – France’s Mistral.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

 

Walking the Winds: Bora

— approx reading time: 2 minutes

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, Where the Wild Winds Are, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Nick's third extract for ClimateCultures comes from the end of his three-week journey from north-east Italy down the Adriatic coast, through Slovenia and Croatia, in search of the freezing Bora – whose name comes from Boreas, the ice-bearded Greek god of the north wind.

Gornje Sitno was the highest village, the end of the road. Six inches of powder snow squeaked under my boots as I climbed, snowballing at the tips of the laces, making lion’s tails. The snow had favoured the windward side of every leaf and blade of grass, while tree trunks and telephone poles were vertically scored with a furred white line angled precisely northeast, as if magnetised to a new pole. The world had been perfectly bisected, divided between spring and winter.

The Bora on Mount Mosor, Croatia
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
www.nickhuntscrutiny.com

Sheltered by the slope at first, I could only hear it. But then I reached the top, and the Bora was upon me.

It was on my skin, freezing my face, blizzarding into my eyes. My eyelashes were frosted, my beard stiff with ice. I made the mistake of removing my mittens and my fingers throbbed so much it felt as if they’d been slammed in a door. The chill of it pushed me back, forced me to proceed in a crouch, as if advancing under fire. Or as if I was bowing.

It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind. It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force. It was in my lungs, under my skin. Like a religious maniac, I roared my appreciation.

The Bora roared right back at me, and the mountainside ignited. An eighty-mile-per-hour blast lifted veils of powder snow, frozen spindrift that swirled like smoke, spinning itself into ice tornadoes that leapt from slope to slope before blowing apart again in mists of agitated dust. It happened again and again as I watched, each white eruption spreading and merging to create gyrating clouds that travelled as fast as a forest fire, hurtling down the mountain. The Bora’s face was visible in each fleeting pattern of snow, each convolution and curlicue, each vortex, twist and coil. I saw the invisible appear, the formless given form.

What did the Bora say to me, on that frozen mountainside?

I could not read its words. Its language was too large.  


Next week, Nick shares his experience of the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn of Switzerland, bringer of wildfires and insomnia and clear skies.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

Walking the Winds: Helm

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, 'Where the Wild Winds Are', tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. In the second of five excerpts for ClimateCultures, Nick describes his walk across England's Northern Pennines on the trail of the Helm, which blows from desolate Cross Fell to wreak havoc in the Eden Valley. 

The view resembled a different country to the one I’d seen the morning before. There was no sodden cloud, no murk; the land was bright and loud again, the weather vane of the topmost pines twitching to the west. I made coffee in a pan, cowboy style – a mouthful of grits and a mule-kick to the heart – and as I was thinking of going out, the door banged open.

It was a cheerful pink woman who had hiked up from Kirkland. ‘You can hear the Helm up there,’ she announced breathlessly. ‘It’s horrible, howling and moaning and groaning. I was too scared to go up.’ I was already pulling on my boots, fumbling with the laces. ‘You know why it’s called Cross Fell?’ she continued, taking out her sandwiches. ‘It used to be called Fiends Fell. People thought that demons lived there, so they sent a holy man to bless it. He exorcised the evil spirits, built a cross to drive them away. But I don’t think it worked. It still sounds like it’s cursed.’ I was halfway through the door. I didn’t want to miss them.

The Helm Bar, over Cross Fell
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://nickhuntscrutiny.com/

It certainly looked like the home of fiends, despite the bright sunshine. Dramatic events were occurring above, in the fathomless workings of the clouds; it seemed that opposing weather systems were engaged in epic warfare. To the north and west a ragged mass scoured the lower slopes of the fell – Grey Scar, Black Doors, Man at Edge, said the place-names on my map – hazing the air with a smudge of rain, leaving shreds of itself behind. Autonomous mists of water vapour travelled in long vertical trails high above the Eden Valley, and grandiose crepuscular rays poured down on the mountains of the Northern Lakes, where Ullswater distantly shone as bright as a mirror. The Helm Bar was not in place, but developments were moving so rapidly it seemed that anything might happen. Scattering Swaledale ewes I hurried on the Pennine Way, up the long, deceptive rise that led towards the summit.

Who was this mysterious holy man? I wondered as I climbed. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that no one really knows; some say a bishop, some say a saint, some say a wandering monk. A local clergyman, the Reverend Robinson of Ousby, wrote in 1709 of the

evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts. Since that time it has had the Name of Cross-Fell, and to this day there is a heap of stones which goes by the name of the Altar upon Cross-Fell.

What had the woman from Kirkland meant, talking about howling and moaning? Alone in that empty place I soon found out. Something must have shifted in the air, for the aural landscape suddenly changed: above the buffeting blows of gusts that banged recurrently on my ears, flatlining like microphone distortion, rose an unearthly whispering like dozens of tiny voices. It was a mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals, complex patterns being woven in the air, and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress.


Next week, Nick shares his experience of the Bora, walking the Adriatic coast from north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com