In the first of a series on “anticipatory history”, I review the book of that name. A copy went to Jennifer Leach for her recent contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Produced by an interdisciplinary research network, the book explores some of the thinking and possibilities involved in ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in order to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and which we might shape.
This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust – on ‘storying adaptation’ – to the network’s final symposium. I’ll write more about my own involvement with ‘anticipatory history’ approaches in a later post.
For now, I want to introduce the book – as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.
Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question – what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” – found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months – typically up to half the project lifetime – coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’.
It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:
“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”
At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is “anticipatory history”?
The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.
“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”
As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) – or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”
Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220 year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history, suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features.
With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,
“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”
‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:
“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon
“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White
The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches – or even a naïve combination of all three – in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”
“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”
How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.
“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”
So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding – ‘Acclimatisation’, ‘Coastal squeeze’, ‘Entropy’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Managed realignment’, ‘Monitoring’ – to the deceptively simple – ‘Birds’, ‘Ebb and flood’, ‘Living landscapes’, ‘Memory, ‘Museum’, ‘Place’ ‘Rhododendron’, ‘Tides, ‘Woods’ – via the playful or provocative – ‘Besanded’, ‘Dream-map’, ‘Liminal zone’, ‘Palliative curation’, ‘Rewilding’, ‘Story-radar’, ‘Unfarming’, ‘Zone of exclusion.’
You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles – or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.
The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.
In the next post in this series, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore. Further posts will discuss examples of how the ideas explored by the research network have been trialled and developed, including some of the work I’ve been involved in; and investigate the creative potential that might be developed.
Find out more
Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.
The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.
The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…
Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking..."One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
I encountered the Deep Time Walk app through a chance conversation at art.earth’s creative summit, In Other Tongues, in June. I was fascinated to give it a go on my local woodland walk, and have been returning to it for repeat exposures. Here is my review of the app.
“We will see how one thing jumps out of another thing, the second thing completely different from the first thing. We will see impossibility. Second steps may be unlikely but first steps are impossible! But impossibility isn’t a problem. It doesn’t stop anything, it only maybe slows it down. It is a weak wall; everything is always pushing it down, striding straight through it.” – The Fool
“You came from this! Every one of your senses developed in relation to this Earth. You smell because the Earth is smellable … You touch because the Earth is touchable. And you think because the Earth is thinkable. You and the Earth are two ends of the same thing. Only you can split them, by imagination. Or rather, by a failure of imagination. Failing to imagine what is actually the case.” – The Scientist
3500 – 3400 million years ago
This is a walk through 4.6 billion years of Deep Time of Earth’s history towards Now. A walk taken by a Fool and a Scientist, trading insights, knowledge and deep questions as they go – and along the way they bring us into their explorations of life and our world. This blend of geology and biology is the story of us and all the others that have made the long journey before and beside us. Of how non-living and living matter shape and adapt to each other, freighting oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and other essential elements through their loops and feedbacks. Travel is important to this story – it is the story – and a walk with expert guides is the perfect vehicle.
The team behind the Deep Time Walk App has just celebrated reaching their crowdfunding target, matching Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the project further. But the app is available now and is well worth exploring. The first interactive mobile app of its kind, Deep Time Walk accompanies you along Earth’s entire geological timeline (so far), and can be taken anywhere in the world – in countryside or urban settings. Moving at a scale of 1 metre to 1,000,000 years, its two guides and a third narrator take in the cosmic beginnings and shape-shifting early aeons of the planet, through the mysterious emergence of life and the long struggle to multicellular organisation, and the coevolution of life with oceans and atmosphere and land. This is a creative and expert overview, combining sciences and humanities to take in the grand and the minuscule scales of what we are made from and who we are: the biosphere amongst hydro-cryo-litho-pedo-atmo-spheres.
A new walking companion
If you want to enjoy a walk of a few miles then you’ll probably choose a new walking companion with some care – especially if they are going to do all the talking! So a guide like this requires good writing, sympathetic narration and a high quality production. Fortunately, Deep Time Walk boasts all three and will enhance your stroll through either a familiar landscape or a first-time encounter. I’ve listened in full three times: on a walk through my local woods; a trek to my nearest train station and then on the journey itself; and as a conventional audiobook at home. There was something new each time, such is the wealth of knowledge packed into the story. And the app team’s decision to involve three voices – three characters in narrator, scientist and fool – enhances the impact of all that information. And the conversational tone engages the listener as a fourth character, which is key to making an experience that rewards repeated listening. No surprises that the text is brought to life by professional actors: Peter Marinker, Chipo Chung and Paul Hilton are voices you may recognise from many radio and TV productions.
2000 – 1900 million years ago
Time and the body: working on a human scale
Pacing is important here, and although the walk takes you at a steady one-metre-to-the-megayear rate – calibrated to your pace when you enter your height into the app – it is able to take in varying rhythms of geological and biological change. Partly this is down to well-timed pauses along the way, as you’re encouraged to stop and enjoy the view while the characters explore key transitions in detail or they review the journey so far to emphasise key points. Mainly, it’s down to the quality of the writing and the interplay between the scientist and the fool, which strikes a balance between ‘informative’ and ‘entertaining’ as the content requires. Fool and scientist are far more than the stereotypes they could easily have been cast as, showing emotional depth and at times either supporting the other through doubts or picking up on their assumptions. In other words: human beings. And, throughout, the changing planet is itself treated as a personality. Only very occasionally does this risk straying into ‘Mother Earth’ speak, but never steps too far. And this is, after all, the territory of Gaia – the Earth-System-as-lifeform metaphor, which can sometimes revert into Goddess talk. If that’s your thing then you will find the occasional references to her pleasing; if it’s not, they are too occasional to get in the way of the fascinating science and the real wonder of how and what this world is, and how we have come to understand so much and yet so little of it. If you can’t take a good metaphor for a walk, who can you take?
1600 – 1500 million years ago
The app comes with a glossary, which you can access at various points through the story to learn more about the terms you are hearing. As far as I could see, there’s no way to scroll through this independently of the narration, which would have been handy at times when I wanted check with something later. So, if you want to know more about the solar system’s Gas Giants then you’ll need to check that when they crop up during your few metres walking through the “arrival of liquid water” (partly on asteroids swung into Earth through the orbital slingshots of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune); the glossary then moves on to consider this Late Heavy Bombardment in more detail. But you won’t want to keep interrupting your walk to check the screen and pause the narration, so the glossary is best explored later on; you can set the app to ‘walk free’ mode and just sit back to take the tour with an eye on the screen. With that in mind, it’s a shame the glossary can’t be searched independently on the app, and doesn’t appear on the website, because it provides a lot of extra detail in a concise and very readable format. Maybe that is an area that the new crowdfunding support will help the team to develop.
1300 – 1200 million years ago
I’d also have liked to see part of the narration encouraging me to connect what I was hearing to what I could see around me on the walk. That couldn’t be truly interactive of course – at least in this phase of the app’s development – but it would be possible to pose questions or give pointers to things we might encounter on a typical urban or rural walk. Thinking of the natural geology that we’ve transformed into buildings, roads and other infrastructure, for example, do we ever stop to consider how long ago the rocks and minerals were laid down, the journeys they have been on as volcanic, tectonic and weathering activities have shaped and reshaped them? And my woodland walk sparked off many associations with what I was hearing about the development of photosynthesis and the accelerating diversity of early life.
But these are very minor issues compared with the ambition of the project to bring Deep Time to life or, as the creators say, “make the unfathomable, fathomable”. It’s an ambition that this beautifully designed app delivers on. I will be very interested to see how it develops further with the new funding – and how artists and others make use of it as a creative stimulus or maybe a tool in their own explorations of time and change.
And the last section of the walk? The final metre is a million years, just like all the others, so that’s a mere 20 cm for the time our species has been on Earth, give or take. We leave the last Ice Age just 1.3 cm behind our Now, and we’re just a fingernail deep into shaping the Anthropocene… Where next?
Find out more
You can read about the history of the app and the team of scientists, writers and artists behind it, at deeptimewalk.org and watch their Crowdfunder video. You can download the app for IOS or Android via the Deep Time Walk website or direct from Apple Store or Google Play.
In this Aeon article from October 2016 David Farrier, a literary scholar at Edinburgh University, explores the meeting of Deep Time and the Anthropocene, where our “need to imagine deep time in light of our present-day concerns is more vital than ever. Deep time is not an abstract, distant prospect, but a spectral presence in the everyday.”
Back in 2014 – or about a micron or two ago – the Smithsonian magazine reviewed Imagining Deep Time, an art exhibition then showing at the US National Academy of Sciences, and you can see a gallery of the images.
Questioning Deep Time? Space for creative thinking...
"For you, how is Deep Time revealed most clearly in the human body - your body? Through its interactions with the physical world - moving, breathing, sensing? Through its development over your lifetime, or its prehistory (and future history) across generations? Through its consciousness, and the dreams and visions you create with it?"
Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.
A lively, loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists can be both fun and thought-provoking. But my biggest impression from the creativity that unfolded at Climate Symphony Lab was the sheer noise. Physical noise echoing in the studio, and the overhwhelm of data placed in front of us as raw material for our creative thinking. Later, unexpectedly, I found Hilary Mantel helping me make sense of my impressions. ‘History is not the past’, ‘the map is not the territory’ – and the review is not the performance. These are merely my highly partial impressions and reflections on a day making music with the Anthropocene.
In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present:
“St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.” – Hilary Mantel
But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.
Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.
On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.
Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.
But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?
With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?
To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.
The echo chamber
A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.
60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.
So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.
Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.
The animal in the room
No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.
It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it – a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.
I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….
And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.
Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!
Dissonance and disciplines
In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic – the shreds snowing to the floor – to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.
Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.
I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.
Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.
“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.
Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:
“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.” – Hilary Mantel
Find out more
You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.
Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.
Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”
This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.
And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.
Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...
"What is the soundtrack you'd like make to 'capture' something about climate change, and what technologies and sounds would you use? How would you acknowledge the 'missing voices' you'd have to omit?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
Rediscovering William Golding’s novel, The Inheritors, in an Oxfam bookshop not only provided the first ‘book prize’ offered for a Members’ Post on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects (see Julien Masson’s excellent contribution: Three Objects #2), but an opportunity to reread this classic a couple of decades after I first discovered it. Here is my review of this essential reimagining of a key transition in the story of humanity.
In his 1955 classic, The Inheritors, William Golding famously reimagined the lost world of the Neanderthals at the moment when the very last of them were losing it. His family of hominids – the People – encounter the incoming Homo sapiens – the New People – and only bitter, unprecedented experience can tell them what this will mean.
Almost the entire novel is experienced through the eyes and other senses of Lok, one of the family group making the seasonal journey inland from their winter coastal grounds to the forested uplands. Here, they shelter in a rocky gap in the forest: an ancestral cave, barely more than a recess in the cliff terrace overlooking a glacier-fed river, with its mystery-giving ice field above and deadly waterfall below.
Golding worried that his portrayal of Neanderthals wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny. “I haven’t done any research for the book at all,” he warned his editor, “just brooded over what I know myself.” His editor replied that any expert’s suggestions “would be the wrong sort” and published the book as it stood. A later essay by Golding’s daughter Judy – marking the 60th anniversary of the novel – cast light on just what it was that the author had been brooding over:
‘Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of the second world war. Postwar austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting. Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (“the people”) and the group of Homo sapiens (“the New People”). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.’
Judy Golding claims that her father’s sense of guilt – “not only over the people he himself had killed … but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war” was also a kind of hunger, one that consumes humanity.
Rereading The Inheritors after 25 years, I was surprised at first by the extent to which it makes for quite hard reading. It’s beautifully written, as I remember with all his novels I’d read in my twenties; but I’d forgotten just how Golding used the restrictions of language to convey the world through the thought-images of our distant cousins – distant in time, and also in consciousness. Through the eyes of Lok, his people’s social and natural world (with no distinction possible between these aspects of being and belonging) is rendered as timelessly familiar to him and his family, while unfamiliar to us. The People’s lives are practically tool-free – every need of a sick elder for a drink means a trip by someone down to the river to fetch water that has to be cupped in their hands all the way back up to the cave. Every step and act is dictated by the need to eat, drink, shelter and avoid the predatory hyenas and cats. Our reading of their life is difficult, as we struggle at times to make out what it is that Lok and the others are seeing. When Lok spies the New People drinking water as if it is being given to them by “a wobbly animal” that one of them holds under her arm, and which goes flat and empty when she accidentally drops it on the ground, he doesn’t grasp that they’ve used an animal skin as a container, and we don’t see at first that this is what he has witnessed.
Much of what Lok witnesses makes sense to us (and, too late, to him) in retrospect, and also through the reactions of his mate, Fa. She seems to grasp more about these strange new arrivals – of their darker side, especially. When Lok persists in not understanding what has become of their daughter, Fa cannot explain (or bring herself to) but her dumbfounded reactions to his ignorance are moments of heart-breaking tragedy, as we come to apprehend something that is never shown, stated or explained. This truth about the New People – us – is not explicable, because it is not comprehensible. Golding hides “the darkest event in the book” from us, just as Fa hides it from Lok as they huddle together in a treetop looking down on the drunken, violent rituals of the famished humans after their unsuccessful hunting trip.
Golding gave his Neanderthals basic language, which they use sparingly, but a rich sensory and imaginal understanding of their world. Much of their communication takes place in the sharing of pictures, a form of telepathy that occasionally helps to transfer novel ideas from person to person. Lacking a strong sense of past or future, their eternal present is a tragic illusion for the People; only we know what is coming and what the changes will mean – for them, and for us.
It may be unhelpful to fixate on the People as Neanderthals – and therefore to worry about the accuracy of Golding’s portrayal of them. Clearly, the story acts as a recasting of the Biblical Fall. A central symbol in the novel is the waterfall. Always present as an image of force and danger for the forest dwellers, it plays a literal role in their ending. But it’s also a source of realisation for Lok in its new role as metaphor, when he starts to see things through that novel form of understanding: one thing in the guise of another. It’s this transition from proto- to fully human – from imagining to rationalising, inhabiting to remaking – that marks our self-exile from the Eden of a world that lives around and inside us, the inheritors.
Nothing stands against them
Fa goes missing after a clash with the incomers and, for the first time in his life – and in his picture of the life of his people – Lok is alone in the forest. He can hear the sounds and shouts of the New People in the distance, as they cut their way through the trees to travel uphill with the hollow logs they have used to cross the river and which they are taking with them into the interior. The noise diminishes:
‘He could hear no more than the voice of the old man when it rose in command or fury. Down here where the forest changed to marsh and the sky opened over bushes, straggling willow and water, there was no other sign of their passage. The woodpigeons talked, preoccupied with their mating; nothing was changed … All things profited and thrived in a warm windlessness.’
But Lok is now able to contemplate this seemingly unchanged scene with “a new head”, knowing now that appearances are deceptive; in fact everything has changed, thanks to the newcomers’ violent nature. His own change includes the ability to see likenesses he’s never been conscious of before.
‘The new head knew that certain things were gone and done with like a wave of the sea. It knew that the misery must be embraced painfully as a man might hug thorns to him and it sought to comprehend the new people from whom all the changes came … He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it … Now, in a convulsion of the understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption … they had emptied the gap of its people with little more than a turn of their hands.
“They are like the river and the fall, they are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.”‘
Whatever the author’s intention in casting the pre-Fall people as simple, loving and unaggressive scavenger-gatherers (they never kill animals for food but do take kills discarded by predators, for which “there is no blame”), inseparable from their environment, while the New People hunt with weapons, fight among themselves and walk in fear through the forest, Golding also showed their common humanity. Both groups’ lives are centred on family, emotional understanding of their community and a need for security. This tension between commonality and ‘Othering’ must have had great resonance in a world torn open by total war, death camp genocides, forced retreat from imperial self-delusions of ‘manifest destiny’ and mounting Cold War fears of apocalypse. The resonance should be even greater for us, in the Anthropocene – a new age for the new people – where these collective insanities shapeshift and accelerate into even greater forms.
Perhaps the old people here are more a mark of our lost connection with the more-than-human world than of the origins of our species’ apparent drive to exterminate (merely) its own competing sub-cultures. With their red hair and mode of walking bent forward, Golding’s ‘Neanderthals’ perhaps seem more like orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay); their gentleness and too-late understanding of what the New People are capable of chimes with a picture of how far Homo sapiens is prepared to go to cut itself out of the web of life by cutting down the web itself.
Fa listens patiently to Lok’s assertion that their daughter is still with her kidnappers, carried off with the canoes now being rolled uphill on felled tree trunks:
‘Fa looked mournfully at his face. She pointed to a smear on the smoothed earth that had been a slug.
“They have gone over us like a hollow log. They are like a winter.”‘
The inheritors upstream
Once the novel is done with the story of the people of the forest, the final chapter is for the inheritors, and we see the world through their eyes. They are paddling upstream, free of the forest that they feared for its natural perils and its red-haired devils. The protagonist now is Tuami, a hunter and a rival of the old man who leads them as shaman. Also with them in their boats, alongside their passions, superstitions and cleverness with thoughts and tools, lies a baby – another captive from the forest people. The red-haired devil-boy, looked on with mixed amusement and repulsion by the inheritors, is protected by the dominant but childless woman of the group. Tuami watches the comical play of the adoptive mother and infant and feels the inspiration he has been lacking for the ivory knife handle he is shaping.
‘The sun shone on the [woman’s] head and the [baby’s] rump and quite suddenly everything was all right again and the sands had sunk back to the bottom of the pool. The rump and the head fitted each other and made a shape you could feel with your hands. They were waiting in the rough ivory of the knife-haft that was so much more important than the blade. They were an answer, the frightened, angry love of the woman and the ridiculous, intimidating rump that was wagging at her head, they were a password.’
A password to where? To a distant future where part of our inheritance is the result of an interbreeding between one branch of humanity and another – between two aspects of humanity – and maybe some hope for a tempering of the fearful and violent separation of culture from nature?
Find out more
Judy Golding’s article in the Guardian marking the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication offers many insights into the writing of her father’s novel, and the inspiration he took from his own family in portraying the family of forest people.
Novelist Penelope Lively’s rereading of the novel makes the connection between the book and the then recent discovery of the prehistoric art of the Lascaux cave painting which inspired the novel’s original cover. “The dustjacket has that leaping stag figure from the walls of the Lascaux cave – half human, half animal – which places it fair and square within the context of its inspiration. It is hard to realise now the effect that the discovery of the Lascaux paintings had in the post-war period: those images haunted the imagination of a generation. For some, like Golding, it was the implications of the images and their setting; for others, it was the extraordinary sophistication and perception of the paintings themselves.” (You can read more about Lascaux, its discovery and art, in this entry by Emma Groeneveld in the Ancient History Encyclopedia).
This blog by science writer James Kingsland at Plastic Brain points out some of the problems with Golding’s novel as a literal representation of the Neanderthals (but its truthfulness in the broad sweep) – and echoes a feeling that reading Lok and Fa as more distant primate relatives could be helpful.
Questioning Origins? Space for creative thinking..."Where does being human begin for you - whether in a life, within the web of life, or in deep time? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
In my post Interstice #1, I quoted naturalist and writer Tim Dee’s account of Odin’s mythic ravens, Hugin and Munin. So I was delighted to see Richard Alwyn’s new and poetic film of the man himself as he walks off into the edgelands of the Wash, in search of a pure wind. Here is my review of the film, Into the Wind, which was shown on BBC Four on 12th April. You can catch it on BBC iPlayer, where it will be for the next couple of weeks.
In every direction, washed greens, browns and orange-browns stretch into the distance, flattened beneath skies of grey becoming blue. The camera seems to spend half its time on that view and half on the man’s face watching the view: pink from the cold wind, rounded and soft where the land and sky are flat and severe, it’s a face alive with questions of a place that seems without obvious answers. Tim Dee, naturalist, radio producer and writer, has eyes that seem to pierce the distances beyond the wide horizon. He’s trying to see the thing he’s come to listen to: an unmediated, uninterrupted, thousand-mile wind.
Dee spots his destination, a long mound in the distance. The only thing of height for miles around, “it’s the place I imagine capturing a pure Wash wind”. He strides off, satchel of recording equipment at his hip, covered microphone held aloft; he refers to it as his equivalent of a pilgrim’s staff or dowser’s rod, but it more resembles a giant, furry grey caterpillar on a stick, or an outsize candyfloss gone badly wrong. The large headphones suggest that his ears must be the only part of his head that might even remember warmth. As he walks, the camera following a little shakily, we see he’s moving along a bank through the flatlands, passing above deep channels of water that cut through the grasses. The only trees are bare and strung out in thin lines, parceling off squares of naked brown soil: fields where there had been sea.
52.9167°N, 0.2500°E: The Wash, reclaimed sea-land between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. A “questionable shore,” as Dee names this place he first encountered as a teenager: “a great place to meet the sea, because the sea was permanently meeting the land and both seemed unresolved about the status of each.” It’s a constructed, “brokered edge, made by banks and reclamation.” The camera frames the curve of the bank and its watery ditch, the angle where it turns a sharp corner of yellowing grasses and heads off into the distance. On a mission to contain, to control.
Walking in such a wide land, usually alone, he says that what draws him on “is a sort of oblivion … a kind of dissolve into a landscape. It takes the bigness of ‘self’ and dissolves it.” Now, he is silhouetted in the middle distance, facing down a soft slope into the emptiness, binoculars held up to his eyes, microphone slung behind him, pointing up to the sky.
Dee, used to striving for the near elimination of wind noise in the voice recordings he produces for radio – the “wild track” that distracts and subtracts from the desired audio focus – is now on a quest to capture the sound of the wind itself, on its own terms: “wind as wind might sound in its own ear.” But it’s hard to capture because, “in some ways, it doesn’t exist as a sound. What we think of as the wind is the sound that the wind is making as it rubs over the surface of the world”. We hear grasses, sea, trees, not the moving air itself.
He imagines a future life – his retirement life, but perhaps also one beyond that finite horizon? – of listening only to his tapes of the wind, the human voices all forgotten, when “it’s the turn of the really big voices to have their say.” Wild track is the thing.
Returning to the here and now and the visual, lying on the slope of the bank, he watches the infinite, uncontainable sky. “This is what the surface of the Earth sees. The wind is visible, the way the clouds are moving.”
And then, alarmingly, we’re into his memory of the time “when the wind first came to call on me.” Again, when he was a teenager, but this time cycling the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, delivering the evening newspapers. The only other person in sight, a stranger walking ahead of him through the dark November afternoon, looked back once to catch the approaching boy’s eye – and then stepped up onto the parapet and into the wind tunnel of the gorge, to be held up by nothing for just one instant. Dee catches our eye briefly too as he tells us this and, a moment later, we see a bird of prey hovering above the field behind him, hunting. “But because he wasn’t a bird, he didn’t stop.” We’re left to wonder what the approaching Earth saw then, looking up as a man proved to the air that he wasn’t a bird. It was a cruel sight to force onto a teenager on his afternoon paper round.
“But that was a wind story to me, because it proved to me in some ways that the air, as pushed through that gorge, was a place simply that we couldn’t go, that wasn’t ours for entering or mastering in any way. And yet the birds were falling and rising in that wind. It’s their place, not ours.”
There are deep furrows in the marsh as he progresses from the fresh to the salt, walking now beneath the level of the manmade bank, into mud and marshgrass and the footprints of geese. The mound is close, standing like an ancient long barrow, but Dee pierces the myth even as he makes it, revealing this as a failed freshwater reservoir. But perhaps, I think, that will stand just as long as our other relics have done – and then remember that the sea probably has other plans, even for a place that’s been taking land from it for centuries. A storm light hovers over the horizon.
Where everything is kept in motion
Now he is climbing at last onto the mound, the highest ground for as far as we can see. Coming up behind, the camera frames him against the reveal of a vast plain of mud. Brown and grey shoreland almost up to the horizon, broken by silver threads of water reaching out to a sea that is still impossibly far off. After the wind stories and the brokered edge, this is landscape from a Tarkovsky film: a zone of suspended reality, flickering back and forth between something clearly natural and something somehow other. A highly questionable shore.
“I feel closer to the wind than I’ve been before.” He’s holding his wind-dowser’s rod ahead of him. “You feel it coming straight at you, from who knows where, out to the north.”
Now we hear it too, what he came for: a pure wind, washed off the sea, fresh from its own creation and untouched by the vast distances it’s travelled already. “Like it hasn’t stopped for anything yet. I’m probably the first thing this wind has hit for about a thousand miles, and it’s telling me so.”
At this point he chuckles into the cold, fast air and I wonder what else he’s hearing in it. He looks like he’s left the ordinary world for a moment. “I don’t hear the sea and I don’t hear the grass, and the mud is quiet. It’s a bird wind; when you are in it and it’s blowing you around, but it’s not sounding like anything other than itself. Which is what you are, as well. I sometimes think if the dead go anywhere, they go into the wind. That’s where everything that was is kept in motion, blowing and going. All the birds and all the people.”
The wind rumbles on. He stands there a moment longer, then descends to step a few footprints into the mud and kneel with his pilgrim’s staff before him. His clothes and headphone-headdress as dark as the mud, his hair as grey as the sky, he is an ancient seer, a discerner of wild track, reaching forward to hear beyond the horizons.
Find out more:
Into the wind – a film by Richard Alwyn and Tim Dee, was shown on BBC Four on 12th April 2017 and available on iPlayer until 10th May (and no doubt will become a staple repeat). It was made by Wingspan Productions.
Returning to a theme of ‘Wicked Cultures’ for ‘Wicked Problems’, I give my personal review of John Gardner’s Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.
“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel
John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.
Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall
This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.
The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.
The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.
Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.
Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:
“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”
Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.
When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:
“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”
He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.
(B)ordering the world
This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?
Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.
In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.
In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in
“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen
Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:
Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body
As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.
Thesis II: The monster always escapes
Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.
Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis
Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”
Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference
As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.
Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible
Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.
Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire
What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.
Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming
Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.
Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’
Find out more
The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky
On a Spring day, we gathered for The Night Breathes Us In – part of Reading’s Festival of the Dark.
Saturday 25th March – almost on the Spring Equinox – was the perfect day to be in Reading for the latest instalment of its year-long Festival of the Dark. Blossoms and blue skies and a temperature to match, with a good crowd making use of Forbury Gardens just off the town centre. I’ve never discovered this Reading park before. I’m glad I’ve done so.
It was also my first Dark Mountain experience, although I’ve often explored the digital foothills at their site. Their approach to the complexities of climate change and our uncontrolled planetary experiment has intrigued me, and continues to as I feel myself circling closer into its nuances. The name of the event, The Night Breathes Us in, captures this beautifully, expanding our focus to the more-than-human and its agency over us (even while we disrupt it) but acknowledging the unavoidable centrality of our selves within out own experience.
Sadly, in my case, the night only partially inhaled; I was able to stay for the afternoon but missed out on the evening. So, this is an invitation to someone else to post a blog on the second half!
The black marquee in the middle of the gardens was an intimate space to share stories and experiences under the guidance of Dark Mountain explorers, and the three sessions I took part in there brought quiet reflections and gentle conversations.
Uncivilised Poetics – against demented questions
We began with the launch of Dark Mountain’s new book, with readings from the poems and essays in Uncivilised Poetics, and music and natural sounds from the book’s companion CD. Writer and editor Nick Hunt suggested poetics as a needed counterweight to the dominant language and statistics of technical and policy narratives. Poetics – not just poems, but art as exploration and an open-ended questioning – helps engage us in a world that cannot be captured in the beguiling, make-safe terminologies of ‘management’. Nick quoted from William Stafford’s poem, A Ritual to Read Each Other: “For it is important for awake people to be awake … the darkness around us is deep.”
Everyday language can trick us into unseeing important truths, and even our attempts to see a bit wider can still fence us inside our illusions. One of the passages shared in our dark tent in the middle of a city park was from Robert Bringhurst’s essay The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World:
“When I was a youngster in school, someone asked me, ‘If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not? The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and he cries that he has no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?” – Robert Bringhurst
This demented quality to a lot of what we tell ourselves about ‘the world’ and ‘ourselves’ is what Dark Mountain, the Festival of the Dark and others are countering. Poetics is part of what can help us overcome this strange collective lack of traction on the depths and connectedness of the world. Bringhurst also quotes Skaay, a Haida poet from America’s north west indigenous cultures, who refers to humans as xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay: “plain, ordinary surface birds.”
“Creatures with more power – killer whales, loons, grebes, sea lions, seals – know how to dive. They pierce the surface, the xhaaydla it is called in Haida.” – Robert Bringhurst
Poetics is one way for us plain, ordinary surface birds to pierce the flatness of our worldviews.
Crossing the Bridge
Art editor and writer Charlotte du Cann guided us in Crossing the Bridge, an exploration of the traditional solar and growing cycles of the year: the solstices and equinoxes, and the seasons of fertility, growth, fruitfulness and latency that they help to parcel out. These are transitions from which we are easily distanced but never truly separated. We need to know how we are creatures in and of time: a deeper one than is surfaced in our phones or clocks. Deep time is not just in the rocks and soils. It’s built into our substance: bones, tissues and cells, and in the bacterial cohabitants inside us. Everything that makes us ‘us’. It’s inside the shallow time of our daily preoccupations, even as these try to hide it from us.
Using stones that the group had brought in pockets or memories – stones from beaches, flint soils and rivers, from ancient glacier beds or the mysterious recesses of ebay – we toured the eight solar and soilar doors of the yearly cycle. We explored the associations, memories and feelings through whatever door we found ourselves placed at on our stone clock. What do the light of summer or the dark of winter do with us, within our minds and bodies?
And we talked about the stones we’d brought to share. I found memories of the shingle of Orford Ness in Suffolk, and how on one scale – the beach itself – it reveals the seeming fragility of places and lives on the edge, constantly subject to the waves and currents eroding matter here, depositing it there. On another scale – the individual pebble – shingle reveals the persistence of matter as it’s shaped and smoothed and swept onwards. Beach and pebble contain deep time in cycles that “it is important for awake people to be awake” to. Sharing a pocketful of stones brought a beach of stories into the tent.
Holding the Fire
My afternoon inside the black tent closed with theatre maker and author Lucy Neal guiding us through Holding the Fire. She shared inspiration from three key character for her: women from history, personal experience and mythology.
Lucia of Syracuse, a Sicilian Christian of the Third Century, used a wooden headtorch to show her a path through the darkness as she took food and comfort to the poor. And Lucy demonstrated her own candle headdress to great effect.
Lucy met Hildegard Kurt at a workshop in Slovenia. Hildegard used moments of quiet reflection and exchange to reveal: how we hold knowledge and creativity inside ourselves; that this can help us recognise our active part and potential within the flux of environmental crises; a shared space can enable us to explore a different possibility.
Hestia, daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, was the ancient Greek Goddess of the Hearth. Her role emphasises the importance of the fire in domestic and public life; Homer’s hymn to her acknowledges that “Without you, mortals hold no banquet.”
With these examples in mind – of the hearth, shared space and light in the dark – we spoke in pairs, sharing stories of times and experiences of seeing and being seen differently and of awakeness.
Taken together, it was a lot of time to spend in the half-dark tent, but refreshing. And the ‘outside world’ was never absent. Early on, for about 30 minutes, a ladybird crawled over my left hand. It paused occasionally as it struggled to stretch the wings from under its red enamelled carapace, testing if they were ready. Eventually, it managed to unstick itself and take off. Later, speeding police sirens tore across our quiet voices inside, momentarily taking our minds back outside. Everyday life was proceeding all around us. Later, when I looked at the photos I’d taken inside the twilight, I saw how the automatic exposure had kept the camera’s aperture open long enough to paint the black fabric walls almost transparent, the unseen sun revealing a shadowy world beyond the veil. Three simple ways that the ‘outside’ – human, more-than-human, solar – had pierced the surface for the xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay.
Find out more:
The Night Breathes Us In is part of the Festival of the Dark, a year-long festival in Reading, produced by Outrider Anthems. You can read Jennifer Leach’s blog leading up to the event here.
Dark Mountain Project – published Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (“Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths”) in 2009, and has produced many events and 10 volumes of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and images since then.
Nick Hunt – part of Dark Mountain’s editorial team, Nick is a writer of non-fiction and fiction (including the short story Green Bang, which was one of the commissions from TippingPoint’s 2014 Weatherfronts programme). His second book will be published this Autumn: Where the Wild Winds Are is his account of walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover how they affect landscapes, peoples and cultures.