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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Photographer Veronica Worrall explores how art can offer an important emotional response to global pandemic and climate crises, sharing her ‘lockdown’ project to generate images — where photography partners with natural processes to produce a visual essay of optimism.
1,560 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
In the early months of Covid-19 lockdown I found an escape in an azure canopy. I mentally soared over my garden, taking refuge in the exquisite beauty of the empty skies. I found solace from the devastating pandemic. The budding leaves and blossoms showed themselves with exuberance against a royal blue which dimmed elegantly to the horizon. An occasional wisp of cloud offered a sense of distance — a dream hovering. Humanity was facing disaster and yet my garden was thriving. I was being torn between relief that nature was being given a chance and the tragedy that was unfolding across the globe. Like many I turned to capturing images of my garden’s beauty whilst I confronted human mortality.
I was reminded of the very first photographs which were taken to convey a state of mind, the work of Alfred Stieglitz. In 1922 and again 1923 to 1934 Stieglitz made photographic series initially called Songs of the Sky and later Equivalents. Stieglitz had a tumultuous affair through these years with the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He pointed his camera skywards “purposely disorientating”, purposely seeking to take his viewer to his own emotional state. The resultant images of clouds, more than 200, were Stieglitz’s equivalent of his emotions, what Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais has described — in his book accompanying the 2018 ‘Shape of Light Exhibition’ at the Tate Modern London — as “his inner resonance of the chaos in (his) world and his relationship to that chaos”. De l’Ecotais goes on to discuss the exhibited samples of the Equivalent images, suggesting that Stieglitz’s work, although not strictly abstract, was the forerunner of photography moving out from being a purely representative medium. This led the way for photographers to experiment with their own ‘equivalents’. They worked to convey creatively their own emotion following other artists of that time, such as O’Keefe, who were exploring how visual art might evoke the same emotional response as music.
So it is no surprise that many photographers during our 21st-century global pandemic have looked to portray their own psychological state. I was drawn to the skies to express both my joy and fear.
Emotional response and global crisis
This is not the first time in stressful moments that I have used the sky as a haven from my extreme emotions. For example, I took photographs following a Force 10 storm in the Arctic Sea after the boat on which I travelled responded to a Mayday callout. Eventually the other boat was found tucked into a safe anchorage and no one was lost, but the relief was short.
During this trip, I personally witnessed the extent of climate change. These photographs taken after the storm hold both my relief but also my fear of imminent danger. They spoke to me of a unique moment of time and space, when disaster can be averted. And so it was, one evening three years later, in the early days of our global pandemic, the sky outside my front door symbolised both my dread and my hope. My photograph I called Optimistic Outlook.
The image responds
This was a moment when my photography became an ‘art’ aesthetic. The importance of the image was the philosophy involved and my eye’s attempt (quoting George Clarke’s book, The Photograph) “to transform the most obvious of things into its unique potential” — an art equivalent. This image captured my passionate hope that we come through this global chaos with a deeper understanding of how humanity needs to change radically to avoid the predicted tipping point that would result in global chaos, set out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, Impacts of 1.5ºC of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems.
Two months later, May’s warmth filtered into my garden, I was taking refuge in the blossom against perfect blue. I became mesmerised by the delicate beauty. I was not the only one. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram evidenced a burgeoning re-connection between people and the natural world. How could this be sustained? How could we stay reconnected?
This thought seeded my ‘lockdown project’, a continuation of my earlier exploration of partnering with natural processes to make art, in ‘Project Unseen’. My photographs of blue skies and blossom were returned to the trees and left for months, as shown in the image above. Nature’s elements and creatures traced over my images. Whilst monitoring my images attached to the trees a few months later, I noticed the skies overhead were becoming crisscrossed with vapour trails as lockdown relaxed. The sky was symbolising my concern that lessons were not being learnt in a rush to return to unsustainable travel and consumer trading.
Reconnected in hope
Nevertheless, I was determined to continue with my ‘lockdown’ project. My ‘strung up’ photographs were taking a battering in a gale and many images had been significantly degraded — a layer of metaphor. I retrieved them and, although feeling despondent, I decided for this project I would not dwell on dark messaging but use these images as a visual essay of optimism — semi abstracts, my ‘Equivalents’ of hope. I would strive to stay positive in a time of chaos. The images Hope 1 to 5 are part of my project ‘Stay Reconnected’.
Together Nature and I created colourful art pieces, symbolic of the much-needed partnership. We convey the joyful reconnection many had found in our gardens, parks and wayside walks. The images hold my hope for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill presented to the UK Parliament on 2nd September. This is the direction needed to preserve nature’s systems and diversity for future generations.
In past weeks the youngsters have returned to their studies preparing for their futures. Holidays are over and across the world Covid-19 cases are surging upwards again. Chaos is reported across trade and travel industries subjected to a conflicting renewal of government restrictions. The sky has returned to a dome of deep blue, wearing again its symbolic robe — asking us to revisit what is important. More than ever cooperative wisdom is required. Is it possible for our world leaders to collaborate on strategies, policies and practices that allow humanity to stay re-connected to the essence of our existence — the essence captured on cameras as trees blossomed under clear blue skies?
You can see some of Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series at the Met Museum’s online collection. As the note there explains, “In these purposely disorienting and nearly abstract images, Stieglitz sought to arouse in the viewer the emotional equivalent of his own state of mind at the time he took the picture and to show that the content of a photograph was different from its subject. The Equivalents trace Stieglitz’s emotional response to nature through periods of ecstasy and darkness, romantic engagement, and confronting mortality.”
You can follow progress (hopefully) on the UK Parliament’s Climate and Ecology Bill 2019-21, in the Parliamentary Business Progress. It is a Private Members’ Bill, presented by Green MP Caroline Lucas, “to require the Prime Minister to achieve climate and ecology objectives; to give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to work with the Secretary of State in creating that strategy; to give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy”, and is due to be debated in its Second Reading in Parliament in March 2021.
An experimental artist using photography to capture movement, time and natural processes, working with nature and traditional alternative photography in attempts to reduce her artist footprint ... Read More
Artist James Aldridge explores experiences of being ‘other’ as an ability to see beyond the boundaries of binary distinctions: offering us signs of a more inclusive queer nature, from a place that until now has been the edge.
2,670 words: estimated reading time = 10.5 minutes
When I was growing up I experienced my own queerness as not belonging, not being ‘normal’. When I came out as a young man I took the only label I felt was available to me and defined myself as gay, as other. Now at this time in my life I see my queerness as a gift, an ability to see beyond the boundaries between straight and gay, masculine and feminine, human and nature.
Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.
When I first came out as gay I tried to live in a city. I tried to find somewhere that I belonged by being with other gay people, but it wasn’t me. In the end we chose to live in a rural area, somewhere I feel I have more room to be myself, more opportunity to be with animals and plants and experience connection with the more than human world.
I’ve taken a long time to get here, and it’s not been an easy journey. At the point of writing this piece I am 47, married to my husband, Dad to our little boy and living in a Wiltshire village. I am at the start of a relatively new path in learning about climate justice, triggered by discussions with fellow team members at Climate Museum UK. This writing is based on my own experiences and beliefs. I can’t talk for people of colour, or others disproportionately affected by the climate and ecological crises, but I can share the perspective offered by my Queerness.
Paying attention to queer nature
So, at this time of ecological and social collapse, of climate breakdown, with the falling away of old structures, what role do Queer people and perspectives have to play?
“We need guides to help us move through this liminality (and) we have a right to bring our gifts to the world.”
— For the Wild podcast: Queer Nature
My practice as an artist who works with people and places focuses on enabling a sense of identity to emerge through embodied experience of, and artful response to, my/your immediate environment. The Queer Nature podcast talks about the skills and awareness that Queer people have developed as a result of the threat of violence, and the consequent need for hyper-awareness of and sensitivity to our environment. This ability to pay close attention to our sensory experiences, and the possibility of translating that into a practice of paying attention to non-human voices, is a by-product of the trauma that we have experienced as a community.
As Queer people have experienced the trauma of being disconnected from and endangered by mainstream society, so Western society as a whole has experienced the trauma of disconnection from what we have come to call Nature. These binary distinctions divide and separate us through words and perceptions in a way that doesn’t fit the underlying reality. There is no human/nature split, apart from in our thoughts. Colonialism has taught us that we can act independently of Nature, that we are both separate and in control, but as anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us “We can’t do anything at all, can’t be us, without so many other species.”
Being well with change and uncertainty
The Queer Nature podcast describes Queerness “as a becoming… that arises from destabilisation”. My experiences of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.
My arts practice, and the time that I have spent exploring and defining my identity through interaction with non-human beings, has provided me with a means of becoming-with the land. As my good friend the artist Kathy Mead-Skerritt reminds me, it is about “a realisation of our indivisibility”.
Colonisation has taught us that Nature is other, Blackness is other, Queerness is other. Inclusion may invite us in to give us a place at the table sometimes, a place within the city walls, but I value my access to the rich wild life beyond those walls, and the opportunity to live side-by-side with non-human others. Talk of collapse is scary, the ‘end of normal’ can be scary too, but for those of us that have lived outside of normal for much of our lives there is a certain familiarity to it.
“The ecological view to come… is a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definitive centre or edge. The ecological thought is intrinsically Queer.”
— Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought
When I was younger I worked to support the development of a sustainable future. More recently I have shifted towards learning to be well with change and uncertainty. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or have given up, but that I believe we need to be more humble, more outward-facing, and that art can help us with that. Art that is grounded in listening and witnessing, that allows us to slow down, open up and accept our place within vast interconnected systems, can change our way of seeing the world, even if only for a moment. As Nora Bateson writes, through the experience of making art “…we are pulled from our illusion that we can watch life from our safe place at the window. We are participants in the process.”
We can use art to unpick inherited ways of thinking and perceiving, that have led us to act without empathy for others, or awareness of our place within wider systems. As Jonathan Rowson has written, it is this lack of awareness that is the ultimate cause of the crises that we find ourselves in, “Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive, or to know what we know.”
If we want to move on from what Donna Haraway has called the Capitalocene, to the Cthulucene, from the end of one world to the beginning of another, then we need to develop a culture that values ‘multi-species stories and practices’, or what Haraway calls sympoiesis (making with) rather than autopoiesis (self making). Harraway chooses Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene to make clear that it is the system that is at fault, not us as a species. As Queer Nature describe it in the For the Wild podcast, the word Anthropocene relies on a “colonial idea that all humans are inherently bad rather seeing who has had power and enacted ecocide.”
Walking with others
When I first started out on a journey to explore what Queering and Queerness meant to me as an artist, it was as research for a proposal that I was writing. I’m yet to hear if my proposal was successful, but what I have ended up with is a language with which to make sense of my practice, and the world in which I find myself.
As some of us champion a move towards valuing difference, redistributing power and the right for people to live beyond binaries, others are responding with fear to the end of familiar ways of living, and the loss of colonial power. They react by building walls and promoting forms of politics that widen divisions. In such times it can seem too small an action to walk, talk and make, but that is my form of activism, researching how to be well with change by ‘walking with’ others.
“Walking-with is a deliberate strategy of unlearning, unsettling and queering how walking methods are framed and used…”
— Walking Lab, Why Walking the Common is More Than a Walk In The Park
What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.
“Since colonisation is a two-way street, working on the colonised and those who stand to benefit… decolonisation, breaking apart the myths and binaries of civilisation will benefit everyone, including… the land and non-human animals.”
— Jesus Radicals, A Holy Queering
We need to work together to support each other through these challenging times, and to develop ways of thinking, seeing and being that are based on relationship. We need to (Re)wild ourselves and the land through letting go of pre-conceived ideas of what is normal or right and pay attention to what the land itself has to teach us. (I put the Re of Rewilding in brackets because I’m not sure that Rewilding isn’t itself based on the idea of a return to a romantic past that never existed. Wilding for now feels less weighed down with baggage.)
‘Ecological restoration…should no longer be the anthropocentric revival of a pastoral utopia that may have been.’
— Rachel Weaver, About Place Journal
Part of this journey that I am on is about growing more comfortable with not knowing where I’m going. I am learning that there is no neat and tidy endpoint at which everything is picked apart and understood. That the world isn’t ‘out there’ to be saved, it is in us and we in it. And that nothing is fixed, because everything is connected, and every action, however small, can and does have an effect.
At one point I lost all hope of a future, as my knowledge of the climate crisis increased things looked more and more bleak, and I grieved for the future that my family had lost. Now I feel a sense of reassurance that being in the here and now, and acting from a position of being fully myself, as part of a supportive system, is the best and perhaps the only way that I can do good in the world.
Find out more
As a freelance artist, James works with a range of organisations, including Climate Museum UK which was created by fellow ClimateCultures member Bridget McKenzie as a mobile and digital museum creatively stirring and collecting responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Climate Museum UK produces and collects creative activities, games, artworks and books, and uses these in events to engage people.
For The Wild — an anthology of the Anthropocene focused on land-based protection, co-liberation and intersectional storytelling rooted in a paradigm shift from human supremacy towards deep ecology — includes an extensive podcast series. The episode Queer Nature on Reclaiming Wild Safe Space features Pinar and So, founders of Queer Nature, an education and ancestral skills programme which recognises that “many people, including LGBTQ2+ people, have for various reasons not had easy cultural access to outdoors pursuits, and envisions and implements ecological literacy and wilderness self-reliance skills as vital and often overlooked parts of the healing and wholing of populations who have been silenced, marginalized, and even represented as ‘unnatural.'”
In The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2012), Timothy Morton argues that all forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, nor does ‘Nature’ exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life. Realising this interconnectedness is what Morton calls the ecological thought. ‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene is a profile of Morton by Alex Blasdel in The Guardian (15/6/17).
Why Walking the Common is more than a Walk in the Park by Nike Romano, Veronica Mitchell & Vivienne Bozalek is published in a special issue of Journal of Public Pedagogies (Number 4, 2019), guest-edited by WalkingLab, an international research project with a goal to create a collaborative network and partnership between artists, arts organisations, activists, scholars and educators.
A Holy Queering: Rewilding Civilized Sexualities (27/4/11) is part of a series for the Jesus Radicals collaborative site, which focuses on “undoing oppressions from a framework of anarchist politics and liberative Christianity”, explaining anarchist stances on a range of issues: “And, since our place within creation is largely ignored within Christian theology and classical anarchist politics, we explore our relationship with the environment, as well as human relationships with non-human animals.”
Finally, Randall Amster has published a recent essay in The Ecologist (3/2/20). Beyond the Anthropocene includes a very brief account of some of the alternatives suggested for the Anthropocene label, in a wider discussion of what this new age means for us and what our legacy might be and the agency with which we can shape that. “What might follow? The abject urgency of an eponymous Anthropocene makes us all futurists, practically and poetically, and suggests that the promulgation of any human future isn’t merely a spectator sport. … Dreamers and pragmatists alike can unite in the view that another world, a just future with bold vision, is both desired and required.”
Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, adds
This is the fourth post in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of expressing something of the more-than-human in the form of a signal for humanity. James himself says of this piece that “‘Signals from the Edge’ was my starting point but perhaps it has evolved into something slightly different. I’m sending a signal from where I find myself, which has up to now been at the edge.”
Unlike our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, which has a fairly fixed shape, Signals from the Edge develops as it grows. Each contribution stimulates the series to be more than it was up to that point. The edge shifts in shape and in scope and in what a signal might consist of, what it shows of us. Previous offerings have been a flash fiction, an essay/video, a short story — each with a separate reflective piece to accompany it. Here, they are joined by James’s personal essay, with his visual art embedded.
Future pieces will take the form further still — and notions of ‘signal’ and of ‘edge’. In creating the idea for this series, I speculated whether a signal might be a message from elsewhere — whether one meant for our species or one intended for another kind entirely, and which we overhear by chance. Or it might be an artefact of some other consciousness, or an abstraction of our 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 amidst the confusion of human being. What would be your signal, and what edge might it speak from?
Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.
1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 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.
A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.
In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.
You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.
Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.
Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.
Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?
My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.
Perfect coffee pettiness
It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.
The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.
Thus, coffee was born.
Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.
Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.
A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.
This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.
For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.
I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?
Search engine unconsciousness
We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.
There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.
Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.
These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.
Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.
It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.
In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.
For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.
It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.