In the Path of Its Beam

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.


Stalking the Impossible

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

It's been two month's since Nick Hunt's excellent addition to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. I sent him the customary secondhand book that these contributions attract. So my review of that particular book, Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, is way overdue. It's a novel I discovered over a decade ago and have read or listened to many times since. It seems to attract this rereading, so I was obviously very happy to discover a copy in an Oxfam bookshop and have this excuse to enjoy it yet again, to share it and to set down some of my thoughts on such a classic.

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, published in 1939 as Europe descended into war, is a peerless thriller and a brilliant piece of landscape writing. It’s also an exploration of a wounded human forced to resurface long-buried self-knowledge, and a novel of more-than-human relationships.

The plot is taut. A wealthy English landowner and big game hunter, who never reveals his name because his fame threatens reprisals on his friends if his private account – his ‘confession’ – is ever discovered, is hunting in Europe when he slips into an unnamed country and stalks its dictator to his closely guarded country retreat. Like the hunter, the nation and tyrant are never identified. Setting out to test whether his stalking skills are up to this ultimate prey, our narrator is a hair trigger’s breadth from succeeding when over-confidence and a slight change in breeze result in his capture, interrogation, torture and attempted murder by the dictator’s henchmen. From that moment on, he’s in flight for his life, moving painfully, cautiously across a continent that’s closing down on freedom, back to London and then a secret hideout in the Dorset countryside. His hideout is, like much about his past, a secret he keeps even from himself until he is almost at the threshold. Although he is in a state of denial about his actions and motives, as the title suggests, he’s a “solitary beast, exasperated by chronic pain or widowerhood … separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.”

Rogue Male cover, first edition (1939)
Artist: unidentified

‘That safe pit of darkness’

As he digs deeper into his memories – literally deeper, as he lies in the burrow he’s made for himself in the high banks of a long-forgotten lane that’s cut deep and overgrown between two mutually suspicious farms, and waits to see if his equally cunning and ferocious pursuer has discovered him – his journalling uncovers just how much he’s been deceiving himself. He experiences

“the blankness which descends upon me when I dare not know what I am thinking. I know that I was consumed by anger. I remember the venomous thoughts, yet at the time I was utterly unaware of them. I suppressed them as fast as they came up into my conscious mind. I would have nothing to do with them, nothing to do with grief or hatred or revenge … I had not admitted what I meant to kill.”

He represents himself in his pencil-and-exercise-book confession as a blameless, adventuring sportsman. But he recognises that his hope is to understand his own actions, whose “reasons were insistent but frequently obscure”; to “get some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.” This doubling, and the regarding of a reflected self it enables, is anticipated in the moment he first sees his broken face.

“I didn’t recognise myself. It was not the smashed eye which surprised me – that was merely closed, swollen and ugly. It was the other eye. Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt.”

He spends much of his account not recognising himself. And yet, if his relationship with his inner life seems as evasive as his cross-country false trails right up until the final confrontation with his pursuer and the “second enemy dogging my movements – my own unjust and impossible conscience”, his relationship with society at large seems self-assured, if cynical. He scorns the ideologies of ‘the masses’ or ‘the State’ that are taking hold abroad, of course, but also an anti-individualist conformism closer to home.

While he doesn’t escape the male, privileged attitudes of his time, class or country, he’s no misanthrope or xenophobe. He has a keen eye for the character of individuals he meets, a respect for their lives, and a dry and understated humour at his own expense. Nor is he a classic British imperialist in the style of other ‘rugged loners’ from pre-war thrillers. But his view of people and society is heavily skewed to his own – very male and individualistic – philosophy of nature.

As for his relationship with the animal kingdom, this is for the most part that of the hunter; his trek on the continent “quite a conventional course: to go out and kill something in rough country in order to forget my troubles.” But his relationship with the physicality of his environment – not just his native countryside, but wherever he exists, as hunter or hunted – is something far more elemental.

Barely conscious after his capture and questioning, his captors take him to a remote precipice, leaving him hanging by smashed fingertips so his ‘accidental’ death can be ‘accidentally’ detected. Further torn and mangled by the long fall down the cliffside, he’s saved only by falling into a marsh. As he comes back to life – it is a form of resurrection – he’s unable to differentiate body from bog.

“I had parted, obviously and irrevocably, with a lot of my living matter … it was revolting to imagine myself still alive and of the consistency of mud. There was a pulped substance all around me, in the midst of which I carried on my absurd consciousness. I had supposed that this bog was me; it tasted of blood.”

New skins, old connections

That same muddy mess, caked to him as a second skin, binds his wounds: its substance melding with his to keep insides in, outside out even while he cannot completely separate the two in his own mind.

There is nothing cozy about this self-identification with intimate surroundings. Rather than romantic notions of the hunter as organic extension and master of his terrain, it’s a more primal experience; the wounded prey at once part of and apart from an elements that can both kill and protect. Later, lay a false trail, invisible to the eyes of a police and populace who have been cleverly roused by his pursuer, the only cover is the sodden clay of a cabbage field in plain sight of the road he knows his pursuers will use.

“It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where … the half-alive remember hills and sunshine …To lie on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe! If the owner of that vile field had been planting, he’d have stuck his dibber into me before noticing that I wasn’t mud.”

As with earth, water plays a crucial role in his survival. At different points on his slow journey, stream, river, sea – even absent water in the case of a ship’s disused water tank – conceal him, offer the means to clothe himself, or provide his mode of transport through hostile country.

Trees and hedges also assist him. In the first hours after near-death, he struggles to raise himself high into a larch, single-mindedly abusing his tortured hands so as to leave the bark free of tell-tale mud from his boots, and waits out the day. While he recovers, a search party looks for his body below. “When I became conscious, the tree was swaying in the light wind and smelling of peace … I felt as if I were a parasite on the tree, grown to it.” Unable to make sense of what is around him, he can “only receive impressions. I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature.”

Later, cornered in his burrow by the hunter who offers sweetened lies about the freedom he will find again if he signs a confession of his assassination attempt, he tries to tunnel his way out of the death-trap he’s made for himself. The air supply restricted, his digging is constantly interrupted by imminent suffocation from his own spent breath and the foul air of his faeces, which he’s been forced to live with in the dank, claustrophobic cell. “Then I would begin to dream of the root or the stone or the water that was beating me, and I would get up again and go to work, half naked and foul with the red earth, a creature inhuman in mind and body.”

Until this point, he has shared his den with an older inhabitant of the decrepit holloway between farms: another cunning and ferocious beast, a feral black cat. This creature proves to be a great ally.

“I was so prepared to frighten any dogs which investigated me that they would never come back, but it appeared that something had already scared them for me; dogs gave the lane a wide berth. The cause was Asmodeus. I observed him first as two ears and two eyes apparently attached to a black branch. When I moved my head, the ears vanished, and when I stood up the rest of him had vanished. I put out some scraps of bully beef behind the branch, and an hour later they too had vanished.”

As the novel plays out, the man’s world has shrunk from his summer’s freedom to roam, a privileged and skilled loner; to a furtive hide-and-seek testing of those skills; then the hoped-for autumnal rural cover, where he can live off his wits until danger has passed; finally to a dank, filthy pit scraped into the cold red earth beneath a thorn hedge: an isolated and hollowed out existence in a holloway known only to his enemy and to no human friend. The cat seems a last link between him and something like a liveable world that a rogue male might choose rather than be forced to endure.

Rogue Male cover, limited edition hardback reissue
Artist: Stanley Donwood © 2013

The two beasts, wary at first, gradually become respectful and then sympathetic with each other.

“Asmodeus, as always, is my comfort. It is seldom that one can give to and receive from an animal close, silent, and continuous attention. We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice. During the hours while he sits cleaning himself, and I motionless in my dirt, there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us. I cannot ‘order’ or even ‘hope’ that he should perform a given act, but back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action. I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”

How this confinement ends for the three hunters – would-be assassin, feral cat, fascist agent – is not something to let out of the bag here. 

Under cover

Rogue Male is a novel of slowly revealed relationships. Between individual and society. Human and more-than-human habitats and cohabitants. Surface and subterranean. Cunning and culture. The self and itself. Memory recovered and memory constructed. Between the man and the loss which turned him rogue and in pursuit of a vengeance he cannot admit to himself.

The Dorset holloway is not his first hiding place. From the leafy cover where he trains his rifle on Europe’s notorious mass murderer – just “for the fun of the stalk”, he insists – to the muddy bog where he lays his first misleading tracks, the tree where he hauls his broken body, the lakeside foliage from which he dashes to steal bathers’ clothes, his stowaway on a cross-channel ship, the black tunnels of the London Underground or the night cover of Wimbledon Common, to cabbage field and secret burrow, he excels at using his environment to cover, recover, survive. But finally, even with all his skills and instincts – and occasional flashes of imagined ‘simple thought-transference’ between his unstable mind and the unknowable one of Asmodeus – he cannot extend his physical senses out into the light spaces beyond his underground cell. Neither can he hide forever in the dark internal spaces of denial he’s carved out: mental sanctuary from a buried anguish the dictator’s regime brought down on him. He must burst out, into a future and a fate he cannot judge ahead of their reality.

Rogue Male illustration, Folio Society edition
Image: David Rooney © 2013

“Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts. I remind myself that I have extended and presumably will extend again in the time of the outer world. At present I exist only in my own time, as one does in a nightmare, forcing myself to a fanaticism of endurance … I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object.”


Find out more

Rogue Male has been written about many times over the decades since its 1939 publication, and more than once by no less a figure than Robert Macfarlane. The fact that it’s has been a little intimidating to follow that skilled literary tracker’s footsteps is part of the reason for taking so long to even start on this review. Another is that I kept wanting to reread and relisten to the book itself; so I did, and always found something new. You can read his review of Rogue Male and of his attempts to locate the famous sunken hideout of Household’s hero; and if you have the 2014 Orion edition of the novel, you can read the extended version which forms Macfarlane’s introduction.

A limited edition hardback issue was produced alongside the Orion edition in 2014, with cover art by Stanley Dornwood as shown above.

Dornwood also collaborated with Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards on a 2012 book, Holloway. A masterpiece, this slim book of words and images is another, fuller telling of the quest for the Dorset hideout and a meditation on the nature and history of England’s sunken lanes and tracks. I’ve not made much here of the landscape of ancient tracks and sunken lanes that criss-cross Household’s novel, although it is central to the novel’s character, because it is so well (un)covered in Macfarlane’s own words. Holloway book deserves its own review here; but in lieu of that, there’s an excellent Guardian photoessay on holloways, by none other than Robert Macfarlane himself.

And for another analysis of where this semi-fictional sunken lane might be located in fact, with a map, see Chris Newall’s The Rogue Male’s Hideout?

Rogue Male also exists in an Audible audiobook format; and another excellent reading, by Michael Jayston is regularly rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. It’s worth keeping your good eye open for the next airing; this was my first encounter with the story, and I still think it’s the best way to experience it. Maybe through earphones, lying in the dark under stars between the hedges (or if you’re feeling particularly authentic, dug in beneath the roots and earth) of a secret holloway in south west England. Take a cat.

The book was adapted for film in the 1940s and 70s: Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) starring Walter Pidgeon, and Clive Donner’s Rogue Male (1976) with Peter O’Toole. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with either unless you’d a completist. Apparently, there’s a third adaptation on the cards, with Benedict Cumberbatch…

Rather than watch adaptations that are doomed to fail the original, you could explore another, more recent classic of a very different kind. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is his account of what he knew was an always doomed-to-fail attempt to experience land, water and air as a non-human animal. “What’s an animal? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. What’s a human? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals.” You can read my mini-review of Being a Beast, which I contributed to the Happy Museum Project.

What Use is Grief to a Horse?

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, Equus, explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of a society where the human ability to feel true passion is dulled, the human relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature. When I rediscovered it in my local Oxfam bookshop, I knew I'd revisit it and pass it on as one of the works of fiction that has had an impact on me. Equus goes to ClimateCultures Member Ruth Garde for her recent contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and here is my review.

“One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The world keeps sending psychiatrist Martin Dysart customers: the children he’s come to see as being damaged by that world, it judges them as damaging to it. “One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”

Introducing Equus, Peter Shaffer mentions the risks in reproducing a written text. Not simply that the play obviously consists of so much more than the words: the gestures, the lighting and the ‘look of the thing’; but that the printed book “can imprison a play in one particular stylisation … Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.” Dysart seems to feel the same way about his own work: rendering the living spirit back into inoffensive flesh and bones.

A play that says more than once that “extremity is the point” begins with crisis. Magistrate Hester Salomon pleads with Dysart to take personal charge of a 17 year old boy who has committed a crime her colleagues want to punish him severely for.

DYSART: Why? What’s he done? Dosed some little girl’s Pepsi with Spanish Fly? What could possible throw your bench into two-hour convulsions?

HESTHER: He blinded six horses with a metal spike.

[A long pause.]

DYSART: Blinded?

Shaffer said that he’d been driving past a stables one day when a friend told him about just a crime, which he’d heard about at a dinner party. “He knew only one detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute – but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.” That real crime became the trigger for a play portraying a world which has so destroyed people’s ability to feel passion that it leads to incomprehensible acts. 

Alan’s distraught mother, Dora, resists any implication that the blinding was somehow the result of the boy’s upbringing, of society.

DORA: We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. My husband is a good man … He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy … No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself … If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all our things added up.

Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables where Alan worked at weekends, insists the boy was a model employee – right up to the sudden, vicious attacks. “No, he was bloody good. He’d spend hours with the horses cleaning and grooming them, way over the call of duty. I thought he was a real find.” This in spite of Alan’s one oddity; apparently, he never rode the horses, although that perk was the reason most stablehands took the job. Asked why Alan should be so different, Dalton replies: “Are you asking me? He’s a loony, isn’t he?”

Cover of Equus
Design: Dewynters; Photograph: Simon Turtle © 2005

The indispensable, murderous God

Hester wants Dysart to bring back the ‘normal’ boy within the tormented teenager. But the psychiatrist finds himself resisting more and more the call of the tame.

DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God.”

Dysart – middle-aged, working at a relentless conveyor belt rolling cases in through one door and out through another – is, of course, in the midst of his own existential crisis. Hester, horrified by his despairing self-awareness, tries constantly to coax him back into seeing the real benefits he delivers, every day, to the children he cares for. We begin to wonder who she thinks will be the saving of whom: Dysart of Alan Strang, troubled and troubling youth; or Alan of Martin Dysart, world-weary psychiatrist careering down into his own annihilation?

Dysart, however, is having none of it. He’s haunted by a dream that Alan’s arrival has triggered, and for which his own fascination with the ‘civilisation’ of Ancient Greece provides the setting.

DYSART: That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos … It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is … I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse … And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip.

Alan, meanwhile, is running rings round him, deflecting all attempts to uncover the dark reason for blinding the horses he’d cared for. The psychiatrist interviews Alan’s parents, picking apart their differences – class, temperament, religion. He wait, impassive at first as Alan bombards him with constant singing of adverts he’s learned from the forbidden TV, then angrily as the boy makes deep incisions of his own, with barbed comments about the doctor’s childless and sterile home-life.

Religion would seem to be at centre and bottom of Equus: Dysart’s fascination with the primitive rites of ancient Greece, his revulsion at the Normal deity of modern living; Dora Strang’s Christian faith and tutoring of her son against the wishes of her equally devout atheist husband. Gods exert their powerful pull as mortals continually recreate them.

But it’s passion that’s the real heart – buried and beating in in Alan, exposed and dying in Dysart. ‘Passion’ is ‘suffering’ – the Passion of Christ – but, derived originally from the Latin pati ‘to endure, undergo, experience’, later came also to mean ‘strong emotion, desire.’ Experience, suffering, desire – and all the animist, conventional and secular religious forms that evoke, console, contain, inhibit and incite these in their different ways. Alan has imbibed and rejected something of his mother’s religious faith and his father’s ‘rigorously self-improving’ one. And society’s consumerist religion is proselytised through the TV he’s supposedly banned from watching and reinforced by the customers at the electrical shop where he works during the week; selling brand names to satisfy the already well-equipped citizens of techno(theo)logical society.

Alan’s father preaches on TV’s corrosive effects:

FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life – like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. … Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don’t want, just to bolster up the economic system.

From all this, and from vivid if dreamlike childhood memories, Alan has created his own vital, ritualistic worship of his secret God, Equus: kneeling to the picture of a horse framed above his bed; slowly brushing the horses in the stables; secretly taking night-time rides on them. Riding is a worship to be offered raw and alone under the darkness of night, in unwatched fields of mists and nettles: human and animal both naked. Never in the genteel daytime rituals of ‘indulging in equitation’: animal harnessed, humiliated, un-natured; human civilised, ‘mastering’ nature.

At last, exhausted, he reveals his secret, miming for the psychiatrist how two beasts become one and ride out “against them all … My foes and His .. The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe! … The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!”

DYSART: Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that… I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity … Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats … such a fantastic surrender to the primitive. And I use the word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ … I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!

Extremity’s the point

Still from the film adaptation, Equus
MGM Studios © 1977

Although Alan has abstracted his passion into a mystical vision of Horse-become-God as enthralling as the God-become-Man and Man-become-God visions of Christian and Industrial religions, what Dysart sees at its core is a primal relationship between human and more-than-human. Far-removed from “the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!” He dissects the inhuman condition we’ve inherited, become (de)naturalised into, and recreate with every Normal thought and action and speech. Dysart knows he cannot keep Alan free from it. It’s what Dysart also wishes to free himself from – and feels insanely jealous of the boy for succeeding, if only temporarily and at a terrible cost to human and animal. More terrible, though, than the ‘proper’ relationship of humans and animals?

DYSART: I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field … and give him Normal places for his ecstasy – multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he’ll never touch hide again!

Alan has confronted the world of fake reality and discovered his own sexual being at exactly the same time he realises the sexless world on offer in the desolating Normal of his parents’ lives, Dysart’s life and the lives of everyone he sees around him when the young woman he works with at the stables takes him on his first date, to “a skin flick over in Winchester! I’ve never seen one, have you? … All those heavy Swedes, panting at each other! What do you say?”

ALAN: The whole place was full of men. Jill was the only girl … All round me they were all looking. All the men – staring like they were in church. Like they were all a congregation.

Equus is a jealous God. Alan and Jill are discovered in the cinema by his father – revealed as a hypocritical consumer of what he’s brought his son up to beware. When Jill leads him away from the horrifying confrontation and takes him, inevitably, to the place they both know and can be alone together, she’s unaware that the stables are not just her secret place for sex but also his Holy of Holies. Naked with her, Alan sees his God watching through the eyes of the six horses. Equus sees all and punishes transgression, leaving Alan humiliated and, unable to act on his desire for Jill. Forcing her away, when Alan’s alone again with Equus, in despair he takes revenge on His all-seeing God’s earthly forms.

Shaffer’s intense fascination on hearing the brief, almost completely decontextualised account of the real-life horse-blinding was with a crime that “lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.” Meaning that we must all look for our own, incoherent, ones. But remember the one small detail that Shaffer did have: a crime his friend “had heard about recently at a dinner party in London.” More than likely a very ‘Normal’ dinner party, at which conversation, with the odd bit of spine-chilling news and thrilling gossip, took place over plates of animal flesh of one kind or another – although certainly not horse.

A thousand local gods

The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
Photograph: British Museum, Creative Commons licence

Returned to the Normal world – where “animals are treated properly” in that way rather than blinded with their own hoof picks – once Dysart has delivered on his promise to “heal the rash on his body … erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes,” Alan “may even come to find sex funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! … Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

But, he tells the sleeping boy, “He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old nag … When Equus leaves – if he leaves at all – it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements.”

Dysart has confessed to Alan his own secret desire: to escape his work, his home.

ALAN: Where would you go?

DYSART: Somewhere.

ALAN: Secret?

DYSART: Yes. There’s a sea – a great sea – I love … It’s where the Gods used to bathe.

ALAN: What Gods?

DYSART: The old ones. Before they died.

ALAN: Gods don’t die.

DYSART: Yes, they do.

And earlier, when he told Hesther of his true passion for the world, his own form of worship, Dysart was offering it to us too. Knowing he’d never find it himself but warning us: try – find every way through, out of the Normal and into something more real.

DYSART: I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could … stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones like Zeus – no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs – just as of certain frowns and slouches … I’d say to them – ‘Worship as many as you can see – and more will appear!’

It’s a passion not for the abstract but the particular vision – of place, of person and of the more-than-human world: a renewed and habitual relationship with habitat.

DYSART: And of all the nonsensical things – I keep thinking of the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? Not to be a horse any longer? Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together – the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life – and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? … I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says [Mocking] ”Why? … Why Me? Why – ultimately – Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!”

Find out more

The script of the play is published by Scribner / Simon & Schuster (2005).

Questioning extremity? Space for creative thinking...  

"Extremity is the point," suggests Martin Dysart - in the world of Normal, where passion is flattened out, made safe, and industrialsed violence against animals (human and non-human) is hidden from sight. Freed from a need for any 'final, coherent explanation', what extremity might your creative practice bring to light?" 

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ClimateCultures interview

— approx reading time: 1 minute

One of our Subscribers passed on one of our recent Re:Culture mailings to the folks at Manchester Climate Monthly - MCFly. Marc Hudson, MCFly editor and climate change policy researcher, contacted me for an interview.

Manchester Climate Monthly – or MCFly – “exists to inform and inspire and connect people in (Greater) Manchester who are taking or who want to take action to improve the quality of their lives and communities and to prepare for the changes that are coming because of climate change and energy price rises.” There’s all sorts of interesting and useful stuff on their site.

You can read my interview here. And Marc sent me this link to a fascinating interview he did a few years back with psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, which he rightly thought would be in tune with ClimateCultures: highly recommended.

Thank you, Marc – and thank you, mystery subscriber.

The moral of the story? Do pass on ClimateCultures info wherever you think it might strike a chord!

The Words That Make Our Stories…

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

The second in a series on ideas explored in Anticipatory history, this post looks at four of the entries in the book, and other illustrations of how language reveals and shapes the way we understand and respond to environmental and climate change: 'The Stories We Live By'.

In my introductory review (which you can read here), I described Anticipatory history as a “very partial glossary”, both in the sense of exploring only some of the many words or phrases that might appear in any conversation on environmental and landscape change and in the more important one that the different professionals, academics, artists, politicians or other people engaged in such a discussion would produce a different account of each particular term’s ‘meaning’. The book contains 50 short entries drafted by 19 members of the Anticipatory History Research Network. It could have contained another 50 or more, from many other voices. This acknowledged partiality is part of the value of such a book.

Words – both everyday language and technical vocabulary – have power to reassure or disturb, confirm our beliefs or unsettle them, bringing a reinforcement or a shift in perspective. I recently took part in an environmental humanities Summer School at Bath Spa University, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. It was an excellent programme of talks, group work and site visits, with 45 researchers and students from 11 countries, as well as a team of academics from Bath Spa itself. On our first full day together, and in wonderful summer weather, we gathered on the Newton Park Campus for a guided tour of this historic site, which the university leases from the Duchy of Cornwall: an 18th century listed country house with the remains of a 14th century castle, set in acres landscaped by Capability Brown. It was as beautiful as you would expect from an aristocratic estate now owned by royalty and cared for by a higher education institution rightly proud of their location and heritage. Both beautiful and, as our guide explained in his opening remarks, “a highly polluted post-industrial landscape.”

Bath Spa University, Newton Park campus
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Without rehearsing the full history of the overgrazed monoculture grassland, agricultural runoff-silted lake and introduced non-native woodland species-rich habitat that we were introduced in this idyllic landscape, it’s fair to say that everyone’s perception of what we were walking through was radically transformed by these remarks. It was at the same time attractive, peaceful and pristine in an archetypical English way, and the product of feudal clearance, colonial adventurism and agri-industrial overexploitation. It set the tone for the week ahead and our trips to Avebury, Avalon Marshes and the Roman Baths in the city.


In Erosion, one of the entries in Anticipatory history, Phil Dyke (the National Trust’s Coast and Marine Advisor) talks about the physical consequences of wave energy on soft coasts. Salt marshes, sand dunes, cliffs and shingle all retreat at different rates depending on geology and the power of waves and currents which sweep away materials, often depositing them on another stretch of coast. This erosion accelerates as wave energy increases, as in the more intense storms and higher seas of a warming climate. But erosion can be cultural too, and not all wearing away is a loss. An unexpected turn of phrase, transporting familiar expressions such as ‘polluted’ or ‘post-industrial’ from their familiar settings (wastelands and urban dereliction) to ones we’ve never associated them with before (elegant parks) can enhance our understanding of both environmental and cultural processes, creating new meaning by the very act of destabilising the old one. “We talk often of values being eroded,” Dyke reminds us, “but as with physical erosion, is it always loss? Or do we really mean change? A change of attitude, a change in our view of the world.”

Wavecut platform caused by the sea’s erosion of cliffs at Southerndown, Bridgend, South Wales.
Photograph: Yummifruitbat © 2006
Source: Wikipedia ‘Erosion’

Physical and cultural change go hand in hand – or foot in footstep – collapsing and expanding different scales of time and space in a dialogue where experience and imagination inform each other:

Erosion and retreating shorelines reveal features from the historic environment. There is a greater emphasis now being placed on recording these features and understanding the stories these glimpses of the past can tell before they are lost to the sea. Archaeologists are increasingly comfortable with this approach. Erosion may cause the loss of significant features in the historic environment but it can also reveal new significance like the Formby footprints … revealed by the eroding sand dunes and enabling us to see human footprints captured in soft sediments some 4,500 years ago before the dunes were deposited on top.

– Phil Dyke, Erosion

Managed realignment

Writer and sound recordist Tim Dee also addresses both the physical and mental in relation to how we see and respond to change. In Managed realignment he shifts the foreground, taking his cue from the technology of optical magnification; “If you read Ted Hughes’ bird poems you can tell he used binoculars. His thrushes are terrifying partly because he has been able to watch them close up.” He considers the technology of accommodating changes on our coast, of moving or removing barriers against the sea.

It will alter how things seem as well as how they are, how they live in the mind as well as how they are felt underfoot … The dynamism of silt and the energy of water are great and humbling teachers. The terminology might stink – letting go, the nonce term for sacking, is a near neighbour – but the possibilities of life without barricades is revolutionary.

– Tim Dee, Managed realignment

As an island nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our relationship with coastal change is one arena for conflicting views and – appropriately – warlike language of ‘defence’, ‘attack’, ‘retreat’. Geographer Stephen Trudgill charts some of the phrases in local and media discussions of how to respond to the erosion of the shingle bank – and the road it carries – at Slapton in Devon:

In letters to the local press, such terms as ‘damage’ were used, and the sea was described as ‘a powerful enemy’ … The scientific arguments were relatively simple: beaches do move and erode. However, the ‘letting nature take its course’ stance provoked further anger. ‘Environmentalists’ … were represented as ‘Let the sea win’ (Herald Express, 5 February 2001). The South Hams Gazette ran a letters page (16 February 2001) where ‘managed retreat’ was reviled as ‘ludicrous’, ‘straight out of the Polytechnic guidebook’ and ‘political claptrap’ … Initially, there emerged a very clear local view of what might be called ‘mastery over nature’.

– Stephen Trudgill, You can’t resist the sea

Such language reveals the evaluations that people make, which the online ecolinguistics course The Stories We Live By defines “to mean stories in people’s minds about whether a particular area of life is good or bad.” Our personal evaluations can involve weighing up evidence for and against a course of action – whether to ‘defend against’ or ‘work with’ change – as well as personal associations in our memories, for example, of family holidays on a favourite beach now threatened by rapid alteration.

When these stories are widespread across a culture then they are cultural evaluations – stories about what is good or bad that have become conventional … Once cultural evaluations become established there is a danger that the reason why certain things are considered positive and others negative is forgotten. It becomes habitual … [However,] although cultural evaluations are pervasive, they are not universal, and are constantly in a struggle with alternative evaluations.

– Arran Stibbe, The Stories We Live By, Part 5: Evaluations

Language, associations, perspectives and positions – all can shift, eroding and accreting like soft coastlines, carried between people and communities through the processes of discourse. Both Anticipatory history and The Stories We Live By offer insights into how these cultural shifts can operate and are facilitated or resisted over different timescales and in different settings. On one scale – our own – we might tend to see permanence; or if it’s no longer there to be seen, to imagine and desire it. On other scales, the natural world reveals transience and cycles.

The Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen is an online project which also brings voices and vocabularies to bear on the predicaments of global change and local experience. Cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Reddy produced the entry on Stability – the other side of the coin from erosion, at least within certain arbitrary timescales. Rather than coastal change in Britain, she’s drawing on earthquakes in the middle of the United States far from its most famous active faults”: the tremors caused by fracking for fossil fuels – the Anthropocene localised and globalised.

The Anthropocene and its urgent, frightening changes, like the quakes of increasing size and frequency shaking Oklahoma, become particularly clear when contrasted with stability. Stability can be used to bound and define new upheavals. Stability, in this sense, is a matter of conditions, previously reliable, against which new and dangerous ones might be contrasted. But marking these changes and communicating about them are not neutral acts, particularly when evidence, tools, and expertise needed to do so are subject to public, legal, and academic contests and unstable in their own ways.

– Elizabeth Reddy, Stability

Over longer timescales – industrial as well as geological – Oklahoma’s geology has been far from stable: which is not an argument for introducing and compounding anthropogenic instabilities, but does suggest the value of expanding what we understand by ‘stability’ and ‘erosion’, ‘defence’ and ‘managed realignment.’ As Reddy continues:

Anthropogenic or otherwise, earthquakes are always already part of the earth’s thermodynamic system. In a very immediate way, imagining them as part of a stable ecology, once in balance and now out of whack, both is and is not accurate. As with many complex systems, the sheer scale on which seismicity unfolds can limit our ability to characterize recent changes or describe them clearly, and the ways that we conceptualize them and address their urgency have histories and politics.


Writer George Monbiot recently called for help in finding new words to describe what we mean when we say ‘environment’, which is “an empty word that creates no pictures in the mind.” Reminding me of the managed realignment of my view of Newton Park, he says:

I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. We need a new vocabulary … Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term ‘ecosystem services’ … By framing the living world in this way, we bury the issues that money cannot measure. In England and Wales, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil “costs around £1bn per year”. When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money. But the aggregate of £1bn lost this year, £1bn lost next year and so on is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilisation.

– George Monbiot, Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders

Weather Radar: Hurricane Abby approaching the coast of British Honduras
Image: NOAA’s National Weather Service © 1960
Source: Wikipedia, ‘Radar’

Ecolinguistics, as explored in The Stories We Live By, helps us to detect and acknowledge what geographer Gareth Hoskins, another Anticipatory history contributor, refers to as “narrative swirls”. Hoskins names this essential equipment Story-radar:

a device to detect those narrative swirls. Its cultural antennae recognise the hints, gestures, and tropes of unspoken, overarching story-lines, and make visible their hidden morals and logics … Stories contain within them a plotted sequence in which a tension is ultimately resolved. They are satisfying and attractive and compelling precisely because they make sense.”

– Gareth Hoskins, Story-radar


Perhaps if we could adjust our sense of time at will, we’d detect the swirls in the energies shaping and reshaping the world, the flux of stability and change. Such a ‘reality-radar’ might help us combat our own tendencies to press for the preservation of our ‘now’, to present the world as if coated in a “thin glaze of aspic [as] was sometimes used to present food for display.” Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey reminds us in Aspic that foodstuffs set in this jelly, derived from gelatine from animal bones, “still decay, just more slowly”:

The words ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’, on the face of it so neutral and straightforward … are projected over unpredictable and often unruly objects and environments, in an attempt to ‘manage’ a way to meaning. In this way, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ perform a function not dissimilar to that of the aspic we began with, setting a mould (albeit a quivering, translucent one) around mutable and ephemeral material worlds.

– Caitlin Desilvey, Aspic

“Amazing eels – best not served in aspic”, Avalon Marshes, Somerset
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is another online glossary – mostly offering new words sent in by participants. Possibly not the sort of language that George Monbiot is looking for, its ideas do nevertheless speak to real experiences and emotions, and also to story-radar-like abilities. Borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war, memoir-based science fiction classic Slaughterhouse Five, the entry from artist Jenny Odell suggests Tralfamidorification as the perception of the world simultaneously on all past, present and future timescales – as experienced by Vonnegut’s aliens from Tralfamadore.

Tralfamidorification is a disorientating experience where a discrete object becomes a node on a network. Those who experience tralfamidorification may walk through the world seeing a “beach towel” one moment and then experience briefly the “beach towel” opening up into a black hole of information regarding the production line for the materials, the factory they were assembled on, the human suffering in creating these objects, the resources extracted, the shipping containers they were carried to and fro in, etcetera – moments later the experiencer of tralfamidorification may feel the “black hole” close and they return to the present moment and the object or “beach towel” before them.”

– Jenny Odell, Tralfamidorification

And if not “beach towel”‘ why not “beach”? Tralfamidorification maybe approaches the reality-radar I’m imagining. As well as awakening us to the histories and futures of our own material interventions within the world, a ‘Tralfamidoriscope’ could also bring an awareness of the slow and quick flows and loops of matter and energy that make the world.

Until then, we will have to rely on language and imagination, creative glossaries and rooted experience. “So it goes,” as Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, constantly reminds us.

Find out more

The words

Aspic (Caitlin DeSilvey), Erosion (Phil Dyke), Managed realignment (Tim Dee) and Story-radar (Gareth Hoskins) appear in Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, published by Uniform Books.

Stability by Elizabeth Reddy appears at Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a project of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

Tralfamidorification by Jenny Odell appears at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, “a public participatory artwork by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott focused on creating new language as an innovative way to better understand our rapidly changing world due to manmade climate change and other Anthropocenic events.”

The other texts

George Monbiot’s article Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders appeared in the Guardian, 9/8/17

Stephen Trudgill’s paper ‘You can’t resist the sea’: evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, was published in Geography, the Journal of the Geographical Association (Spring 2009) and is available from his Researchgate page.

You can read about the prehistoric Formby Footprints at the site created by the late Gordon Roberts.

Questioning old senses? Space for creative thinking...  

"Don't fancy donning your tralfamidoriscope headset with enhanced story-radar earbuds? What technology or ability would you invent - or do you already possess - to reveal the whirls and flows that will help us navigate the Anthropocene?"

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