The Words That Make Our Stories…

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 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.

Erosion

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’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

Story-radar

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’
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/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

Aspic

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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Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe

Mark is independent researcher, project manager and facilitator on environmental and climate change issues whose focus is on investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.


Author: Mark Goldthorpe

Mark is independent researcher, project manager and facilitator on environmental and climate change issues whose focus is on investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.