We welcome artist Ottavia Virzi to ClimateCultures with her account of Art Rise Up, a new creative collective that brings art and activism together for environmental protection.
Ottavia describes their recent intervention in support of the campaign to halt opencast coal mining, using art to engage cultural meaning.
How to realign our creative practice in support of effective actions, aiming to help achieve some steps in the process leading to a fairer society? As creatives, feeling this need can lead to different paths: paths that can be centred on raising cultural awareness, or be part of a sustainable design process, or can look at the bridges between art and activism. We are interested in testing this last option inside the collective Art Rise Up. Approaching activism can be an uplifting experience for those looking to direct ways to have an impact, overcoming the sense of frustration and disempowerment that is felt by so many citizens today. Our creative intervention in support of the direct occupation of Pont Valley started from this common need we perceived, to use our creative skills to directly support a significant environmental campaign.
A direct occupation of the valley has been taking place from early March until eviction last week, but the campaign is however motivated to stay strong.A campaign lasting decades for some members of the community, trying to stop an invasive open-cast coal mine from opening right in front of the villages of Dipton and Leadgate, County Durham. A campaign felt ever more strongly today, right when England is committed to coal phase-out by 2025, in an areas which has been historically exploited for coal.
Coal is the symbol of many countries’ slow response in tackling the climate crisis. Moreover, the impact of coal on local community is extremely high, due to coal dust produced through the distressing excavations. A petition signed by 88,000 people regarding the Pont Valley mine was brought to the Home Office in February and ignored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Sajid Javid, the same Tory HCLG Minister — just appointed Home Secretary — who recently denied permission for another mine — at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, on the grounds of climate change and implications on health and wildlife — did not react regarding Pont Valley. The same private energy company, Banks Group, is involved in both mines. This scenario underlines the conflicts between private corporate interest and governments, who are not able to pronounce a complete and definitive “no”. National usage of coal power has diminished in England, amounting to a 8% of the energy mix in 2017. But the continueddependency on cheap polluting energy is a direct consequence of our economic system — based on boundless consumerism — and the lack of extensive policies reforming energy usage through real investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and of a brave discourse regarding the need to re-adjust energy demand. This does not mean de-growth seen as a step backwards, but rather as a different growth and a step forward.
All of these thoughts informed our decision to organise ourselves into a collective which could keep supporting the campaign in London, where our life as creative freelancers often means compromises in a constant search for balance in our actions.
The task we gave ourself was to create something simple and efficient, to give a shape to this large amount of information on the issues in the form of an artistic intervention which could also try to help to influence directly. The exercise of art is after all an attempt to condense communication, and give it tangible cultural meaning.
With the use of a critical neo-classical bust, we decided to underline the responsibility of governments and power figures in handling the climate crisis. This is a call for politicians to re-think the meaning of providing community welfare beyond exploitative models.
Our installation consisted of a clay bust picturing Sajid Javid — empty black eye cavities, and coal around him — and a plaque referring to his controversial silence regarding the Pont Valley mine. In the plinth, built-in speakers were emitting sounds of birds chirping with overlapping industrial sounds of excavators.
The statue has been officially unveiled in front of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Direct action and artistic intervention can share with theatre a performative key, which is increasingly used in protests. We decided to unveil the statue in a ceremony with four officiants wearing masks inspired by Pont Valley wildlife – Skylark, Crested Newt, Pont Burn River, and Gorse Bush. These masks to represent a wider community of people and living beings behind our actions. Mining and burning coal harms the smaller creatures in our ecosystems as much as human communities worldwide.
Our intervention didn’t manage to change Sajid Javid’s mind. The Pont Valley Protection Camp was evicted last week. Banks Group are even planning to appeal against the Druridge Bay decision. What this little journey helped us discover though, is how committed and motivated is the movement behind environmental campaigns. How a small example such as a coal mine in County Durham and a larger perspective necessarily live together. How the journey will still be long, with countless the campaigns to fight. How important it is for all to embark on this journey to adjust the system, from politicians to countryside dwellers, to city workers and artists together, committing to spread awareness and give shape to a real plea for change.
Find out more
Ottavia Virzi is a set and costume designer focusing on sustainability, heritage crafts and social history, and you can find her work at her website and on Instagram via her ClimateCultures Directory page.
Art Rise Up has a Facebook page and intends to promote and share contents about Art and Activism.
Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.
Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.
Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.
One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?
The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.
No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones – more cunning, that’s all.’
And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.
Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.
For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.
I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.
An alien heat
Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”
It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.
They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.
Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.
Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.
Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:
‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’
‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’
She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.
Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.
She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”
It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.
A dangerous place
In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:
Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.
And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:
The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.
In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:
I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’
She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.
What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.
It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’
Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”
More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.
But what are you doing here you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.
Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.
And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:
The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.
Find out more
Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature, Sarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”
The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”
Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”
A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”
To mark ClimateCultures' first three months on Twitter, here's a random trawl backwards in time through our growing archive of Members' tweets: news, views and recommendations from some of our 90+ Members: one each. With apologies to any Members I missed this time round: more Tweetopedia to come).
A new initiative from @ClimateKeys gets off to a great start today with artist Isabel Pellegrino. "Art is the medium in which past & future can be depicted in a single visual frame – challenging reality & affirming innovation … something imagined that could become reality." https://t.co/PLbPLvgxYs
On the ONCA blog: @laurajcol's review of @susanpoet's Words The Turtle Taught Me – 'her poems are the beginnings of a road map, giving us something bright to hold on to amidst even the deepest of losses.'https://t.co/M2vFslhkr4
Tonight's Turtle gig @ONCAnetwork will be dedicated to the common skate. My skate poem is extinction-themed & I've been feeling such deep sadness/anger at the death of #Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, that a new line will be included in the poem just for him.
In this welcome return by one of ClimateCultures' earliest contributors, visual artist Mary Eighteen brings us up to date with her collaboration with video artist (and fellow ClimateCultures Member) Julien Masson. In the earlier post - The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement - she explored how their project "invites viewers to imagine a world where the ocean, as we know it, is on the trajectory to extinction. Both painting and video are presented together, to accentuate this experience." Here, Mary focuses on the concepts of framing within painting and video as a means to provide the visual encounter with abjection.
Our project is ready to launch in terms of seeking the correct exhibition space. The appropriation of Kristeva’s abjection, by reversing the abject as human trauma and positing it within the world of oceanic trauma, remains central to the work.
When preparing or proposing ecological scenarios for an exhibition that invites the spectator to view and consider the abjection of our oceans, it is important that our frame itself also challenges the oceanic problems facing humanity. Both of us have explored this in relation to the idea of the architectural space provided for our proposed exhibition.
The viewer and the frame
Our further research into spectatorship, regarding the viewer and the frame, responds to Paul Sharit’s concept of “presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at a painting.” (1) Therefore, for The Ocean as Abject, I have as a painter responded to a process of painting as installation, so that spectatorship is addressed not as an observational exercise, but as a concept of thought in terms of viewer participation. To this end the viewer is invited to contemplate both video and painterly installation within the structure of the frame.
In my previous post I presented my painting Abjection 1 and said:
“I have produced three further paintings which are narrow (70cm wide), and in two vertical sections. With a nod towards installation the paintings will each sit on a set of steps that will be in line with the canvas and flush with the wall.”
Since then the steps have been made and suitably sprayed black with car spray paint.It can be seen from the images here that the paintings aligned with the steps are moving towards installation. The steps are symbolic of a possible sixth extinction, and of the steps we need to make to prevent such an occurrence. The frame therefore challenges spectatorship on two levels. The steps incite interest by deconstructing formal notions of the frame. In doing so, the viewer is invited to question further the purpose of the artwork. Subsequently they must consider the powerful insights evoked by the exhibition.
Steps to the future
The three paintings — Abjection 2, Abjection 3, Abjection 4 — are the beginning of a body of work that embraces this notion of the frame. While the top smaller sections on all three (70cm x 60cm) make a reference to landscape, albeit in an abstracted manner, the lower long canvases (70cm x 122cm), suggest a disruption of flow that symbolises a world where meaning has started to collapse. The steps are a prelude to that plausible collapse and invite the spectator to consider this conundrum. They make reference to both ecological concerns as well as exploring the art object in relation to the frame.
While the paintings — unlike video — are static, the steps are a move away from the manner in which a canvas is so often traditionally presented. This could be further investigated by also interrogating the way in which painting can be displayed on a wall. After his death in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly’s last paintings were exhibited at Mathew Marks Gallery in New York (May 5thto June 25th 2017). In his critique of the exhibition, Terence Troullot shares Branden Joseph’s quote on the artist, “The wall is part of the painting and always has been.” (2) Troullot’s own summary of Kelly’s painting White Diagonal Curve (2015) suggests that “a crescent shaped white canvas set against an all-white partition wall, seems to be part of the background, and yet escaping from it as well, outwardly moving in all directions.” (3) In relation to Troullot’s observation The Ocean as Abject makes it essential that frame as well as painted image emanates the idea of a sullied ecology. This is to ensure an enlightened spectatorship, by presenting painting via a disrupted surface that not only interrogates the viewer but also the architectural space within which it is exhibited. By ‘disrupted surface’ I mean that, in my case, the nature of displaying a painting is challenged by the addition of the steps.
Painting, video and architecture
Similarly, Julien Masson’s video for The Ocean as Abject (which can seen in the earlier post) was initially presented as a concept in three parts. It was suggested that the video would work well as a series of slow panning shots stacked (in strata), on one screen or in succession. This makes me think of montage and the whole idea of assembly or editing. In his thesis Eisenstein’s Theory on Montage and Architecture Jeffrey M Todd states that “Montage then deals with the combination of several dissimilar elements which through their assemblage establish new meaning “(4) For me this statement elaborates the purpose of our proposed exhibition. The Ocean as Abject juxtaposes painting and video for the purpose of evoking an ecological awareness for the spectator, and this assemblage as installation uses the designated architectural space to convey meaning and purpose via the frame.
“If as Eisenstein suggests, film and by extension, moving image installation descends down one line from architecture, then another branch must necessarily proceed from painting, that other creature of duration.” (5) Within the historic links of architecture and painting, punctuated by the more recent mercurial rise of video art and installation, The Ocean as Abject will in the end be defined by the architectural space provided. Within this space, spectatorship must then focus on the frame in order to transcend the meaning and purpose that lies beyond the frames presented.
Together, Julien and I have created work that aligns a relationship between video and painting, but we have also considered work that has the flexibility to relate to the architectural space that it will be exhibiting in. In her book Installation and the Moving Image, Catherine Elwes says “There are obvious continuities across both practises arising from formal considerations — both moving image and painting organise pictorial elements: shapes, textures, colours, light and dark into readable signs, for the most part defined by the frame.” (6)
Two artists — one a fine artist and painter, one a multimedia artist whose work straddles both video and the visual arts — have addressed how the frame can be used to heighten awareness of the worrying conditions that are affecting the survival of our oceans’ future, and in turn our own.
Find out more
Notes from Mary’s text:
Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces in Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press. 2015
Questioning the frame? Space for creative thinking...
Consider a specific frame - whether a structure or a concept - that contains, sets apart or maybe makes ready for investigation some cultural representation of an aspect of environmental change. How is the frame sometimes visible, or sometimes not, and does this change your understanding of the change?
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
For our latest Members' Post, it's a real pleasure to welcome Lisa Lucero, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. Lisa has been conducting archaeology projects in Belize for almost 30 years, where she focuses on the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management among the Classic Maya. Her most recent project involves exploring collapsed sinkholes fed by groundwater for evidence of ancient Maya offerings and their climate and landscape histories.
I’m walking through the humid tropical jungles of Belize, a small country in Central America where many more people lived in the past than today. As usual, I am not alone. I never go into the jungle without my Maya field assistants. Even with a GPS unit and compass, one can get lost quickly. The jungle is their backyard, and they know everything about it; their knowledge of wild fruits, berries, medicinal plants, building materials — it’s truly astounding. They also help me conduct my archaeology research — understanding how the ancient Maya sustainably lived for thousands of years in the face of two intersecting challenges: seasonal drought, and periods of climate instability. Too much or not enough rain was a constant, either short- or long-term, and yet the Maya persevered in the southern Maya lowlands (SML) of present day Belize, northern Guatemala, and southeastern Mexico.
How did the Maya accomplish this? My research attempts to address this question because I know (not believe) that there are lessons we can learn from the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) that are relevant today. Let me explain.
As an archaeologist, my role is to explore how our ancestors lived. When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was interested in the emergence of hierarchical political systems. How did the earliest leaders get others to hand over the fruits of their labor? Many years and several publications later, what emerged was this crucial fact: climate change matters. No matter where or when in the world, climate change has played a significant role in shaping political histories. And it still does. I illustrate this point with a brief narrative on how Classic Maya kings arose and fell, and how the rest of the population adapted — and still do, as the millions of Maya currently living attest.
A fateful dependency
The setting. While the jungle may seem homogenous, it is not. The karstic topography gave rise to high biodiversity and a mosaic of dispersed resources, including fertile soils. This resulted in scattered farmsteads where the majority of Maya lived, as well as hundreds of urban centers with varying power based on agricultural surplus and water. While there was an abundance of rainfall during the annual seven-month rainy season, much of it percolated through the porous limestone bedrock. Surface water was thus relatively limited. Everything, thus, was rainfall dependent. Key factors so far: noticeable seasonality, high biodiversity, dispersed pockets of fertile soils, rainfall dependency.
It is this vital reliance on rainfall that is key to understanding the Classic Maya — their cosmology, agricultural schedules and strategies, livelihood, political power, and so on. The largest urban centers and concomitant support population and the most powerful kings emerged in areas with plentiful agricultural land, but without surface water such as lakes and rivers: Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol in Belize, to name a few powerhouses. But, you might be asking, if the majority of Maya lived scattered throughout the landscape, how did kings get farmers to contribute their labor, goods and services? Such efforts resulted in what most people think about when the topic of the Classic Maya comes up — urban centers with palaces, temples, ornate tombs, massive open plazas, ballcourts, elaborate hieroglyphs, inscribed stone monuments, beautifully painted ceramics, carved jade, shaped obsidian, etc. The answer: water. More specifically, artificial reservoir systems that increasingly became interwoven not only with center design, but with political power.
During the agricultural intensive periods of the rainy season, farmers worked in their fields. In the dry season in areas without much surface water, they congregated at centers for drinking water. In exchange for access to water, Maya commoners/farmers maintained royal buildings and lifestyle; they also participated in public events and ceremonies sponsored by kings, met up with friends, bartered goods at markets, and so on.
This system was in place for nearly a thousand years in the southern Maya lowlands, beginning c. 100 BCE until c. 850 CE. By 900 CE kings had disappeared. There are two parts to address how their political systems ‘collapsed’: path dependency; and several prolonged droughts. ‘Path dependency’ basically is putting all your eggs in one basket; as financial advisors tell us: diversify, diversify. Maya kings relied on reservoirs to draw in their subjects who, in turn, funded the political economy. Thus, if reservoirs failed, so too did kings.
The end of power
Analysis of annual rings of speleothems (stalactites or stalagmites) from caves in the Maya area shows that several multiyear droughts struck the Maya area between 800 and 900 CE. They impacted everyone. Reservoirs dried up and, eventually, people abandoned urban centers and kings. While a minority remained in the interior southern Maya lowlands, former home to the largest and most powerful centers, most emigrated in all directions in search of water and other resources to take care of their families. They migrated along rivers, lakes and coasts. Maritime trade flourished, as did northern lowland centers. The northern lowlands, with thinner soils, make up most of the Yucatán Peninsula, which also is at a lower elevation; that latter feature exposes lots of accessible water in the form of over 7,000 cenotes or collapsed sinkholes that are fed by groundwater.
The southern Maya lowland centers were abandoned for good; hundreds of them. Kings lost power because they relied on reservoirs as the linchpin to draw in subjects. When reservoir levels dropped in the face of the multiple prolonged droughts, kings failed in upholding their duty to provide dry season water. Their subjects left. Perhaps if the kings had diversified their political portfolio…
So, what are the lessons? First, we can’t continue with things as usual if we want to substantially address issues wrought by our changing climate; this includes not expecting new technology alone to save the day; and second, life-changing adaptations are called for — for the sakes of our families.
Questioning dependency? Space for creative thinking...
What cultural patterns are we over-dependent on as we face an uncertain future? How do you feel implicated in these patterns - sustained by them, helping to recreate them for future generations, at risk from their possible failure, trying to reimagine them? Think of our dependency as a path being uncovered in a future archaeological landscape; how would you look for clues of alternative paths we might have taken?
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send us a link!