Owned by the Wood in Winter

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes 


Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.

“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”

Showing the cover of 'The Wood in Winter'
The Wood in Winter’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Cover illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,”  a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

An Ice Age in miniature

In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”

Showing robins and holly in winter
Robins and Holly
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”

‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’

Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.

Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.

“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”

Showing a vixen in winter
The Vixen
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

Find out more

The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).

You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.

Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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You, Small Creatures, Big Monsters

Video artist Mirjamsvideos shares reflective artworks which subtly demonstrate our relationship with the world, using ugliness in trash and beauty in small things to overcome our lack of insight into systems we’ve made toxic to ourselves and others.


2,060 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + 9 mins video


Mission accomplished: my art made somebody cry.

You read it in the art books, in the intellectual words of curators, art historians: art has the power to change the world! But when you are in the artist’s shoes sometimes it is difficult to see if your work has any effect at all.

First of all, the amount of visuals created is overwhelming, so that sometimes even the most important or stunning messages are hardly being seen. Then, nowadays many important venues for artists’ exposure, like festivals and group exhibitions, call for payment just to submit your work for the selection process. The highest submission fee I have seen so far was €350. Here in Portugal that can be more than half the monthly salary of someone with a full-time job. And last, even if you get the exposure, how often does a visual artist receive the message: “Hey, your artwork really changed my life!”?

A still from YOU, a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

Being an artist in love with the natural world it is heartbreaking to see its man-made destruction, and overwhelming to become aware of all the issues we are up against. But worst of all, seeing how little aware people are of the harm we do and how little some seem to care makes me feel lost as to what I could possibly do to spark a change in people’s minds. And then, these words appeared:

“Such a powerful metaphor … to convey such an important message. I cried and although to be really honest I do cry a lot … I cried because I feel the same and you express it beautifully.”… “Thank you for making us think about such a huge issue in such a delicate and poetic way and for reminding us that no matter how bad and tragic the situation is we keep going and we keep going for love ❤️ “

This message appeared after I posted a work of video art that deals with the problem of pollution in Portugal: forests, parks and streets filled with trash.

Trash - a still from mirjamsvideos' film YOU
A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

I also cried a bit, just because it was so good to know that yes, the work did have an impact, I am making a difference! But it also showed that sometimes the effect of an artwork is of a more subtle nature than to see people sign up for environmental volunteering the next day or pledge not to use plastic bags anymore. It can be more like just another drop in a slowly filling bucket. And without these drops, perhaps the bucket would never fill…

A message for my fellow artists: Keep going, you’re doing important and amazing work!

A still from mirjamsvideos's film YOU
A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

Trash & our toxic system

And here are some words about the work of art that placed a few drops in a few buckets.

As you might have read in my ClimateCultures profile, my road to becoming an environmental artivist was a bit, let’s say, controversial. But it also is a great example of the lack of insight we have into the harm that we actually do (at times even when we think we do good). Our education isn’t actually providing us with an honest view, and neither does it focus on what is important for us to know to create a better life on this planet.

For example, I remember that, in my very early teens, I found an explanation in a schoolbook for why the poor nations in the world are poor. It was said that their geographic areas had fewer resources and therefore they had not been able to develop like us in the western world. Now, in the second half of my thirties, I am reading a book — Ecofeminism, by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies — that provides quite a different explanation: it is our western lifestyle that is keeping the rest of the world poor.

Though we are educated to see colonialism as something of the past, it is still very alive today. Some now call it capitalism or patriarchy and there are other names. It steals healthy lands from people to then fully deplete and toxify them. It grows food that is unhealthy for our bodies. It sells clothing created by and filled with chemicals that are making our rivers (our drinking water) unfit for life. It makes us buy makeup for which, in a faraway land, little girls have died in mines and that is sold in loads of packaging — like all of its other products — that we then dispose of improperly, leaving cities and natural areas littered with trash.

In Grande Lisboa in Portugal, where I live, trash flies freely through the streets, in parks, forests, rivers. It’s very painful to see that people care so little, that people cannot see the harm that they do to themselves, but most importantly, to all life that is innocent, that had no share in our destructive ways.

YOU — a film of a relationship 

YOU is the story of how I managed to deal with this ugliness in my world; from denial to panic, to sadness to finding an enormous piece of trash floating in the stream in front of my house that I couldn’t bear to look at anymore, so I jumped into the water and took it out.

In the last months, besides dreamy landscapes that seem to pass by in slow-motion, scenes that come to me naturally, I started to document the trash lying around. My videos are often characterised by still and long shots in which subtle, real-time movement creates a hint of time passing by, of a story wanting to be told. I first attempted to get this effect from the trash as well. But since trash is often blown around until it reaches windless corners, there was not much movement there to be seen. Even flies would fly away when I arrived.

It made me realise that the trash had to be shown in a different way, it had to make a real contrast with the beautiful: I had to create ugly scenes! Actually, I already had ugly scenes, for I sometimes forget to turn off my camera before taking it off the tripod and putting it back in my bag. These wild and messy accidental shots were perfect to portray the panic and disorientation erupting from a brutal attack on one’s safe and pretty world.

Next to that, I started to shoot many photographs of the trash, for these could be easily edited into fast flashing scenes, like suppressed memories that uninvitedly pop up.

The film is divided into six parts. The first is a beautiful and joyful day in which everything seems perfect and innocent. In the second, the problem really shows itself but is waved away like a bad dream. But the third day is taken over by trash and ugliness, panic and disorientation, followed by the fourth part: a time of feeling completely defeated.

A still from YOU – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020


The narration is inspired by a sense — beautifully voiced by writers like Bhai Vir Singh or Rabindranath Tagore — that the relationship one has with the world is similar to that of a relationship between lovers. The world being the other that you desire to see, hear and dance with. Part five therefore is the lover calling back the other who thinks love had been lost. The love is still there, but some mature and responsible action has to be taken for the love to flourish again. And once this has been done, we arrive at the closing part: a happy ending. Because, although I know that the health of the planet is in a really bad condition, I have to believe that we can still save her. Without that belief, I would be practically dead.

So, is my short film going to save the world? No. Much more action is needed. Most importantly information, awareness, needs to spread. As mentioned before, we are dealing with an incredible lack of insight. Information on the harmful effects of our trash on the planet, on ourselves, is not well spread, or not communicated in a way that people can really relate it to their day-to-day life. A lot of work still has to be done, in this and other areas. This little film was just a little start…

YOU – Environmental Shortfilm, Experimental Video Art from mirjamsvideos on Vimeo.

Small creatures and big monsters

When one sets off on the journey to save the world, she opens up a whole new world for you!

I began to see that despite all the nonsense that we do to her, she keeps nurturing all of life, even us. I got a different understanding of the concepts ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Mother Nature’ and started to regard these words with more respect, for really only a mother can love like that.

Snail - a still from mirjamsvideos' film Small Creatures and Big Monsters
A still from Small Creatures and Big Monsters – a film
mirjamsvideos © 2020

It also awakened a more nurturing, more motherly aspect in me, once again seeing the small things around me and those that need our help and our protection.

Imagine you had to move around like a snail; delicately touching the world around you with your tentacles, eyes that can stretch out above your head, sliding a large part of your body over the ground, a wall, a rooftop, possibly feeling every little bump and crack beneath you. A gush of wind is like a storm for you, a kilometre could be a whole country, it could be all you will ever see…

It would be quite a different world, right? When you would actually be in contact with your surroundings…

The greatest challenge about making this work was to get a good shot of loads of cars flashing by. Not only because this is just not my cup of tea, but also because I made this work during Covid times when there weren’t a lot of cars out in the streets.

During this time of silence and billboards not changing every week, and after the fear of running out of food had faded away, a serenity entered into my mind and it became easier to see the small, almost still, but sublime beauty that daily life silently presents us with.

Snails are such magical creatures for me and I can observe them for hours. They live in a beautiful dance of elegant clumsiness, seem completely immersed into the world, masters of mindfulness, yet they look like children innocently discovering what happens around them.

They are the antithesis of the common man: stamping around in thick-soled sporty shoes, slamming several doors behind them, turning a key and speeding away, not for a fraction of a second touching the world.

small creatures and big monsters – experimental video art / shortfilm / nature video from mirjamsvideos on Vimeo.

Not only have we gotten disconnected from the world, but also from ourselves. As much as the ‘great thinkers’ of old wanted to release humans from their animal selves, and despite the fact that nowadays some of us have mechanical body parts or were even created outside of the womb, we continue to be biological creatures. It’s nature that keeps us alive.

Maybe if we’d be a bit more like the snails, we could reconnect a little. Our experience of life and each other could be like a clumsy dance of elegance. We would not throw disposable masks, batteries and random trash anywhere on the ground, because that is neither elegant nor clumsy, that is just stupid.


Find out more

Ecofeminism, by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, is published by Zed Books (2014: 20th-anniversary edition).

You can explore some of the poetry of Bhai Vir Singh and Rabindranath Tagore in translation at Poem Hunter

On the subject of pollution from plastic and other trash, you might read Mike Hembury‘s  ClimateCultures post, Coastline Project — Sailing Under Wolf Island’s Baleful Gaze. And on our relationship with other creatures there is In the Path of Its Beam, my review of Annie Dillard’s classic book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. There’s much to explore on these and other topics throughout our blog, of course!

Mirjamsvideos
Mirjamsvideos
A video artist documenting little wonders that come our way and the pure beauty of daily life, which is all dances of subtle change over time.
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Rewilding — Slantways

Writer Philip Webb Gregg shares a new poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.


1,100 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes


Re.Wilding

we will eat meat still dressed in fur, feather 
and claw. we will give darkness again a place in our bodies. all sickness shall 
be cherished, allowed sweat, gland

and pore wherein to thrive. we will run after each other in the dead
of night – blood on our tongues. penicillin shall be

crucified upon the hill
and forgotten.

our men will wander, blind and bludgeoning, opening
debates with bubbling streams and the burnt-out husks of trees, forming
conclusions with starlings, finding

answers, as they always
have, in the spit of their palms.

our children will die, of course, crushed between
their mothers’ thighs. but it won’t matter, because our women
will know at last what it means to be free.

our teeth will rot and hang slack in our jaws. we will neither know
the names of the stars, nor of each other. but we will hold

each other, nonetheless. nameless and gasping. we will discover again
the truth of words that have no place in our hot
human skins. and with these words we will say, as we die: this is how

it should be. this death
was given by the wind. life shall feast on ash and

the only love
shall be
the love of dirt and
rain.

the air will be clear and the rivers white as our bones and we will breathe. for the first time, in so long. we will breathe. our hearts will be drumsticks in the hands of painted, matted shamans. long dead languages will suddenly spill from our lips like drool, like regurgitated food. like laughter. the wild stones that hold up the sky will kiss and kiss and kiss until they are bent-over bleeding-mouthed and all of a sudden, the clouds shall crash to the ground, heavier than we ever thought they possibly could be. there will be no patterns any more. only perfect, perfect humanity

and disappointed chaos.

Rewilding - showing the painting, 'And the beast which I saw', by artist Luisa-Maria MacCormack
And the beast which I saw.
Artist: Luisa-Maria MacCormack © 2020 www.luisamariam.com

Rewilding — neither forward nor backward

This poem started as all good poems do — in a state of agony. I was lying prone in a chair, mouth gaping wide, feeling infinitely fragile as I stared up into the eyes of my torturer cum-saviour who operated without remorse amid my pitiful moans. That’s right, I was at the dentist. 

And it struck me, as I walked out with a numb jaw and much lighter wallet, unable to speak or barely think past the painkillers, that humanity had never had it so goddamn good.

All my life I’ve believed, no, I have known, that this society (by which I mean Western, capitalist society) is a lie. A con. A dream of progress, behind which sits the ugly nightmare of perdition. I know this because of my childhood. My mother who is an activist. My father who was a poet. The community I grew up among, and all those I’ve met along the way have only served to intensify my distrust of the current system and the certainty that it must, and shall, change.

Not that you need a hippy childhood to come to this conclusion. The truth of it can be seen by looking out the window, reading a thermometer, or simply watching the waves rise. But maybe it is also true that I have too often overlooked the benefits of progress. 

How many lives have been saved by science? How many children born? How much pain averted? And shouldn’t we be grateful for all that we’ve been given? Yes, of course we should. But we should also acknowledge all that we’ve lost. The secret ways. The hidden ways that too easily kindled and charred when the light of logic shone into the wallowing shadows of faith. The idea of ‘not-knowing’ is not a bad thing. In fact, there is salvation there, in the humility and the hugeness of the world. 

The idea of rewilding is not to progress by going backwards, but instead to take a step sideways, into a greener, stranger sense of ourselves and the world. This poem is a satire on everything we have gained and everything we have lost. It is an invitation to take that step, neither forward nor backward, but just a little bit slantways.


Find out more

We are grateful to artist, and tutor of art history and drawing, Luisa-Maria MacCormack for the image which accompanies Philip’s poem. It comes from her series ‘And the Beast which I Saw’. 

As well as Philip’s previous posts for ClimateCultures, you can also read his contribution to our Quarantine Connection series: his story, What We Find in the Guts of the Bodies that the River Gives Us, appeared on Day 2 of this special 40-day series of new and archive material from ClimateCultures members during Covid-19 lockdown.

In his essay for the Dark Mountain Project, Where the Wild Things Aren’t, Philip reflects on his experiences living in London after a childhood in rural Spain: “If we allow ourselves, we may begin to notice that nature is everywhere, just as it always has been. And it is possible to feel like a part of a wider world, even here. There are birds perched on blackened chimneys and squirrels running across abandoned railways. There is a wound of green cutting across the grey pavement. There are trees which explode with life in spring and then wilt into sleep in autumn. The breeze is still cool in summer. In winter, the cold takes no notice. The rain doesn’t care. And that, to me, is at the core of what the wider world stands for. The lesson we can take home, into ourselves, is that nature is the essence of beautiful indifference. Like gravity. Like the sun. Like the earthquake or the wildfire or the drought. These things are neither cruel nor loving, they merely are. And seeing them, sensing them, should remind us that we are no different. Though we build structures between us and the real world. Though we divide and separate and rift. We should remember that we have the outside within us, regardless of cities or walls. We ourselves are liminal, able to inhabit both worlds at once.”

Fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is a member of XR Rewilding, which explores and advances rewilding — of the land, of the human — within the context of Extinction Rebellion. You can see a short description and video from James at Campfire Convention, and there is a public XR Rewilding group on Facebook.

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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I Am Purpose

Writer Indigo Moon shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.


1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Indigo’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

 

universe and purpose, showing moon in the sky
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose

Hello.

We are the universe.

We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.

We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.

Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.

We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?

“Um.”

This is a rhetorical question.

“Oh.”

Digestion of a diseased animal.

Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.

What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.

Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.

We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —

“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.

That is for you to decide.

“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”

We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.

A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.

“Then what do you require?”

Nothing.

A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”

Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.

“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”

We admire your strength.

But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.

“Purpose?”

An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”

“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”

Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?

“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”

But you’re going to tell us, we presume?

“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”

You are wise, child.

Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”

Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.

“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”

As it should.

The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”

“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”

Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.

“I think I already know it.”

Then you have won.

***

signal and purpose - showing the sun above rooftop with aerial
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose — context

I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.

I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.

More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.

I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.

At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.

The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.

I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox?
Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.


Find out more

You can explore some of the issues around the origins of coronavirus diseases such as Covid-19 in human exploitation of animals in this report from the international NGO Traffic: Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response (April 2020).

From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus, by Carolyn Corman in the New Yorker (27th March 2020), looks at how such diseases are transmitted, and the latest research into understanding them.

And Transmission of diseases from humans to apes: why extra vigilance is now needed, by Arend de Haas at The Conversation (24th March 2020) explains how our great ape relatives are also vulnerable to coronavirus diseases — with the risk being transmission from humans.

You can find previous Signals from the Edge contributions in the form of a burning forest and the cry of a fox, and a fragment of an alien encyclopedia, cast backwards in time and in space.

Indigo Moon
Indigo Moon
An activist and writer specialising in environmental, LGBTQ+, animal and human rights, whose online platform uses creativity as a tool to influence and encourage positive change.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

Writer Kelvin Smith‘s three objects — electric lighting, symbolically living money, once-and-future reefs — question what is fundamental to human presence on Earth, what’s been taken from the land and what new creations might arise in future seas.


1,900 words — approximate reading time 7.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The electric Iolanthe

My mother used to tell the story of how electricity came to her village. It must have been some time in the 1920s, when she was a little girl. One day work on the village transformer had been completed and a single light bulb was lit up on the top. Everyone in the village danced around it.

Bear in mind this was not an isolated spot deep in the country, but a village no more than ten miles from the huge mass of mill chimneys in Central Lancashire. This was a major European industrial region, but one in which her village, Woodhouses, had had to wait many years for the ‘new’ power source to be introduced. Not perhaps that anyone felt the need. In the century recently ended the house where she was later born had been built with large windows to let in the daylight for the silk weavers who then lived there. Sunlight and gaslights were good enough for the schools, churches and other aspects of village life. They were not hampered by the lack of electric light and power, and it would be many years until labour saving electric and electronic gadgets entered the home.

electric performance: showing Jessie Bond as Iolanthe in 1882
Jessie Bond as Iolanthe at the Savoy Theatre in 1882

One of the major social cultural activities of the village was the Woodhouses Church Amateur Operatic Society, and its annual staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My mother was a regular performer and her high point was an appearance as Iolanthe. I later learned that Iolanthe was the first work to premiere at the Savoy Theatre on 25 November 1882, and it was the first new theatre production in the world to be illuminated entirely with electric lights. Radio, films, music performance and recording, television, and all the wonders of the Internet would follow over the next 140 years using the miracle of electricity.

electric heritage: showing the plaque at the Savoy Theatre in London, commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity..
Savoy Theatre, London: Plaque commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity.
Photograph: Mick Lobb © 2011 (CCL) www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3010211

Electricity has been as the core of our lives since then, and I wonder, even with generation of electricity by solar, wind and other renewables, if it is right to think of electricity as fundamental to the future of the planet. Can the continued generation, transmission, and storage of electricity really be the only option to maintain a human presence on Earth?

The colour of money

Like many people who have travelled I have a stash of unused currency, coins and banknotes, mostly now invalid, but kept for the feel and smell and for the memories they contain.

The coins are brute metal, the same metal that makes bombs and bullets, the metal of shrieking transportation, the metal of blades that cut crops and butcher beasts.

There is metal in the earth and on the earth, in the skies and in the air, in the water and under the water. It is dissolved and discarded, the metal of industry and the metal of war, the metal of sport and the metal of experimentation. It rusts and decays, but slowly, colouring rocks and leaving sediments, making acids and colourful salts, changing appearance and behaviour, causing trouble and making things go off-kilter. The base metals, the precious and workaday minerals come from all continents. Where do we find our iron, copper, nickel, platinum, silver, gold and more; diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and all the parts that decorate bodies and badges of power, crowns and cutting tools? The same places where coal, asbestos, oil is brought forth from the earth.

There are images and icons on the coins, but I am most struck with the images on the notes. There are, of course, leaders and other famous faces, but there are also birds and animals (elephant, water buffalo, armadillo) and crops (tea, tobacco, maize), tractors and people carrying sacks on their heads. All represent what money can buy, but they also hold the secrets of what money can do.

A collection of banknotes left over from my travels
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

In this Earth we have forced living things to come to us for profit or pleasure, living things made dead for commerce: animal skin clothing, nostrums and potions made of teeth, horn, internal organs and sexual parts. People have turned land into plantations of commercial crops: tea and coffee, coca and cacao, tobacco and bananas, flax and sisal. All of this was done with no concern for the people who were there, who were shipped out, enslaved or indentured, beaten and burnt. Now, converted to foreign creeds, they may make a living from folklore and foreigners, smiling and selling to cruise ship crowds and other travelling charlatans.

The metal and paper tokens remind me of what has been taken, what impoverishment has been caused, what degradation of people and place, what stripping of surface soils and deeper sediments. The people, the creatures and the things that have been taken from the earth now lie on its surface, in its waters and in its air. They will not go back into the land they came from.

A new coral reef

The future is in a piece of coral found on a faraway beach, now covered with mould and mosses in a Suffolk garden. It comes from a period when I would regularly fly to that part of the world, passing over the peak of a dead volcano, noticing each time that there was a little less snow. On the way back north, looking into the dark from high above, I would often see flame lines across the wide semi-arid top of the continent.

This coral came from a beach where it had washed up, already dead, but still carrying the delicate marks made by its creators, small repeated patterns discernible now as the matter crumbles under the pressure of green growth and northern weather. The beach where it came from was, we heard, earmarked for development by a foreign hotel company, but at the time it was clean uncluttered sand, and the only sign of human life was what remained of an abandoned sisal plantation on the hills above. This large expanse was crisscrossed with abandoned small-gauge railway tracks, unseen mostly but felt as a judder whenever the vehicle bounced over them. It was a paradise beach, the remains of a colonial exploitation, from which I took a single piece of dead coral.

electric life - showing a piece of dead coral comes alive again
A piece of dead coral found on a beach in Southern Tanzania in the 1990s comes alive again in Suffolk in 2020
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

Why is this a sign for the future? It is a message of the calm before the next storm. This coral’s reef home, the place where it had lived and died, is unrecorded and unregistered. The other sea creatures are unremembered too.

The white rocklike thing that decays in the English winter is a lost thing with no connection to its origins or to the future. But in the future there may be another reef, not coral now (that is all long dead), but made of constructed things, a reef framed on waste and redundant manufactures, artificial, self-evolved or bioengineered, destined to eat plastics, dung and multifarious detritus, taking on a life and a purpose of its own. Covering the flooded foreshores and coastal cities, cleaving to the metal and the concrete, collecting life from oils and plastics, assaying them for edibility, and beginning the long munching and mulching, the centuries-long work of realigning the chemical and biological structures of the planet. I imagine that these creatures will make colours too, and magical shapes, will evolve pattern, and rhythms to support new forms and adaptation of an earthly life.

Some beings may see these wonderful creations but they will not be us. If there are people still, they will not live near these new oceans and estuaries. They will protect themselves from further damage. They will have no memory.

Survivors will stay far inland, on high points, collecting precipitated liquids, adapting to a diet of who-knows-what organic matter. Humans will breed at random but with difficulty. We will not know a past and will stop imagining a future. We will not have stories to tell. We will look down the slopes and valleys and fear the shifting surfaces of the coral’s realm. We will not try to be powerful again for a very long time. We will have lost the world and our souls, but the new reef will carry on growing.

***

To return to my mother. Her appearance as Iolanthe was often spoken of at home and I particularly remember the story of one young village lad who was asked what he thought about the performance. “It were all right,” he said, “until that bugger came up all covered in seaweed.”

So it might be when the first human plucks up courage to go down to the new shoreline, test the waters around the new plasticised reef, enter the liquid morass and come up covered with … what?


Find out more

You can read a short account of the first use of electric lighting in a public building, at the Savoy Theatre in 1881, at the Read the Plaque site: “Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, supplied about 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, and the lights were powered by a 120 horsepower generator on open land near the theatre. [Richard D’Oyley] Carte explained why he had introduced electric light: ‘The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.’ … Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of the new technology.” Jessie Bond’s own reminiscences include an unexpected reference to another electric innovation at the Savoy: “The improved stage fittings and increased space of the Savoy Theatre made it possible to present ‘Iolanthe’ much more effectively and elaborately than any of the previous operas. There was a great sensation when the fairies tripped in with electric stars shining in their hair – nothing of the sort had ever been seen before …”

As the Engineering Timelines site explains, the public supply and use of electricity was initially quite slow to take off in Britain: Michael Faraday discovered the principles for generating and transforming electricity in the 1830s, but it was several decades before this took over from the established technologies of steam and gas. “It was clear from early on that the investment and infrastructure required for an electrical industry would make electricity a very costly commodity compared with the other well-established technologies. Indeed once it did start, progress was slow.” The first town to have electric street lighting was Godalming in Surrey, also in 1881.

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith
A prose and poetry writer presenting imaginative perspectives on the climate crisis, and encouraging book people to change what they do and how they do it.
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