Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking

RisingMark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world. 

approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes    


A copy of Rising goes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

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In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.

Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:

Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.

Endsickness

Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.

These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.

Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”

‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Cover photo: Michael Christopher Brown / Magnum, Cover design: Mary Austin Speaker

Roots, risk and resilience 

Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.

Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.

As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:

I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.

Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.

Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.

In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”

In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:

… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.

Passwords for a rising world

It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.

rufous hummingbird tail
Selasphorus rufus – rufous hummingbird tail, 1901
Source: birds.cornell.edu

It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…

Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.

Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”

Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”

Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”

Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Louisiana wetlands disappearing under water
Source: US geological Survey

Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”

Absence as form

It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.

In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:

“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”

Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”

Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Buyout Zone, Staten Island
Photo: Elizabeth Rush © 2018

In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”

Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”

As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”

Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”


Find out more

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is published by Milkweed Editions in the US, where you will also find a Reader’s Guide. You can read more of Elizabeth Rush’s writing, including excerpts from Rising, at elizabethrush.net

Out of Range

Out of RangePoet Nancy Campbell reviews Nick Drake’s new collection, Out of Range: poems celebrating proximity and distance (spatial, temporal, emotional) to remark on the state we’re in, taking us on a journey through known worlds into unknown ones.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


Nick Drake has established a reputation for profound engagement with that trickiest of cultural endeavours, formulating a creative response to the climate crisis. Last summer saw the premier by London Symphonietta of Cave, an opera in which Drake’s libretto and Tansy Davies’ score relate a grieving father’s search for survival in a world devastated by climate change. Back in 2010 Drake was among the group of artists and scientists selected for the Cape Farewell voyage around the Svalbard archipelago; the resulting book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier bears witness to the effects of climate change on the polar ice. Increasingly, as the imminent consequences of sea level rise and species extinction become clear (not to mention human culpability) it is implausible to write of the natural world in isolation. Drake’s poems consider human nature, its ingenuity and artifice, our capacity for enacting violence on other humans as well as on the biosphere, whether actively or by omission. One of these works was enshrined in a permanent public art installation about Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, beneath a bridge in London’s Paddington Basin: Message from the Unseen World

I imagine the cycle courier — the dazzling, zig-zagging star of Through the red light, the first poem in Drake’s new collection, “appearing from the primordial chaos / of the underpass … / not giving a flying fuck about red lights” — might have recently swung past Message from the Unseen World, heedless in his haste to the work’s continually shifting texts, its own unpredictable, algorithmic dynamics. The courier is destined to become a text too: it’s the poet who captures him, not a speed camera, before — like many other urban demi-gods in this electrifying collection — he passes ‘out of range’. Drake celebrates his outmanoeuvring of heavy gas-guzzling vehicles, his transgressive speed, before leading the reader on a book-long journey through known worlds and into unknown ones. 

Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Out of Range, by Nick Drake

The ordinary-extraordinary 

There is a devastating trio of Arctic poems (the polar ice, once seen, is not easily forgotten), but on the whole Drake turns his scrutiny on regions closer to home, from Achiltibue in the Highlands of Scotland to London’s East End. These may be familiar places, but Drake reveals afresh their ‘magic, mystery and wonder’, those qualities which the Romantic poet, mystic and mineralogist Novalis (1772-1801) once defined as the goal of the Romantic movement. In these poems Drake seems to share Novalis’s desire to awaken the reader: “to educate the senses, to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It is our everyday actions which need scrutiny in these times, being those which will destroy us.

Drake’s poems take a close and compassionate look at ordinary, sometimes disposable, objects that are too often taken for granted or scorned. Many have been created, cultivated or traded by humans — incandescent lightbulbs, a fatberg in the city’s sewers, peaches:

sunset red in their soft blue cardboard beds
that safeguarded their journey from the trees …
via the cargo belly of a 747

Peaches for the Solstice.

The elegy for the fatberg (which is so graphic it is hard to read without gagging) is titled Stranger Thing, calling to mind Rilke’s Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), quiet works which W.H. Auden described in the New Republic as expressing ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols”. Auden continued: “While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” In Drake’s work there is scarcely a filament, a “hair’s breadth” between these dualities. This approach has interesting ramifications at the present moment, when material culture threatens to overwhelm us.

In Still Life: Plastic Water Bottle (used), the now-ubiquitous shape of the bottle takes over the poem. It is as if plastic particles have made their way into the poem, as insidiously as they have the waters of the world. The layout of the text emphasises how impossible the physical object is to destroy. The water bottle speaks, asks: “Why did you / make us in / your image?” The reader gathers that, in the bottle’s worldview, humans are gods — but gods who find their creation turning against them. There are hints of the exiled duke and sorcerer Prospero, who governs the seas and creates storms, in echoes of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Drake’s poem is most reminiscent of the work of another Romantic poet, John Keats, whose Ode on a Grecian Urn considered human achievement in creating a vessel that outlasted ages, that told a story of its times. Whereas Keats hymned eternal Beauty — “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” — Drake predicts eternal waste (unless an alternative ‘skin’ to plastic can be found?). Whereas Keats addressed the urn, it is Drake’s water bottle that addresses the reader, depriving the human of any voice or agency within the poem. In both poems, however, the enduring nature of the vessel becomes a means to meditate on human temporality.

The most haunting example of ‘the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred’ in this collection comes in Ollamalloni, a poem which describes the experience of a common Aztec ball game from the perspective of a priest who believes he is witnessing a religious ritual. (Written for the London Olympics 2012, it indirectly celebrates the capital on a cultural high, before the 2016 Referendum.) Throughout the collection, without anger or agenda, a picture of the city and a febrile wider world emerges. London’s various pleasures include dancing in gay clubs until 3 a.m., the comforting fluorescent glow of all-night stores, and people-watching in cafes at weekends — it’s a place in which, despite many inequalities, people at least have the right to love who they choose. But encounters between humans are rarely satisfying. The poet is more likely to interact with the whorl of hair at the back of stranger’s head, scrutinised while sitting on the top deck of a bus, than look into their eyes. The script of the street is a tragic monologue: the ‘raving statue’ of a begger (Maenad); a homeless man, venting his rage on being taken short and finding the public toilets closed (London Fields). In Night Bus, a man who is ‘keening’ and incomprehensible:

calling out
lamentations to the empty street —

What words in what languages is he yelling
across time zones and distances?

While some poems present uninhibited diatribes, others consider barriers to communication. In The Dancing Satyr, a bronze statue at the Royal Academy has been dredged up from the sea — a poignant forerunner of the plastic water bottle, perhaps. It is “resuscitated but refusing to answer our interrogations” and, like a warped digital device, “uttering a modem feedback / at a pitch too extreme for human ears to hear”.

The Dancing Satyr, from the Royal Academy exhibition, 'Bronze' (2012)
The Dancing Satyr
Royal Academy exhibition, ‘Bronze’ (2012)
royalacademy.org.uk

Out of range

Communication across distance is a preoccupation — whether through the fine arts of the past or the obdurate and brilliant promise of technology. In the title poem, a mobile phone no longer works ‘out of range’. Failing to get a signal, Drake retreats to the “windowed coffin” of what might be “the last phone box on earth”. He speaks past the dead spiders in the handset, into an unseen place 5,000 miles distant, tapping into “rush-hour babble”. The ability to communicate at the vast range of a globalised society is necessary to facilitate our closest relationships — and the future.

The phone box might also be a Tardis, of course, although Drake is too subtle to say so — and this ambitious book doesn’t stop at the Earth’s atmosphere but takes the reader into outer space. The roads along which the cycle courier swoops are supplanted by a more vertiginous course. The furthest range in the collection is saved for the Voyager I spacecraft:

with the immortal gold LP

fixed on your side,
coded for ancient technology, our message
of the sounds of life on earth, all that we are
or wish to seem –

Life on Earth.

Voyager I carries a message that will have aged by the time it reaches its destination: “44,000 nightfall years / to the next star”. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, for the optimist there are two options for humanity’s future: “First, the exploration of space for alternative planets on which to live, and second, the positive use of artificial intelligence to improve our world.” The irony is that the technologies that characterise the Anthropocene, dependent on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals, have condemned human life, but also that — in the eyes of some thinkers — these same inventions now have the potential to save us too. 

The Voyager Golden Record, from NASA
The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

Technology facilitates connections between those who share a city (or planet, or solar system), between lovers, partners, friends, strangers, and those unknown generations who may inhabit a future world. They are present as a “delayed echo” (Out of Range). This convincing instinct for — not to put too fine a point upon it — love, mitigates grief at what is being lost. One poem, Send, returns to that by-now familiar anxiety about communication. The reader is relieved to discover that sending a text message will be less troublesome than the titular phone call. Initially, this gives every appearance of being a traditional sonnet, a love poem across time zones, with echoes of Shakespearean doubling in the lover’s observation of time differences: “my summer day’s your night”. In the fourteenth line — which in a sonnet would be the last — the narrator claims to hear voices in the cloud: “I know they say we love what we must lose.” But Drake does not permit such a mournful conclusion: “this poem will not have that ending”. Another quatrain follows, and no full stop.

Send, and other poems in this collection, aspires to connectivity rather than catharsis. Can our everyday actions rewrite the formal structures which surround us, Drake asks. Can we wrench fate around, and tell a different story to that which the satyr screams, as it dances “to Earth’s lost songs / in the radiant silence of the boundless dark”?


Find out more

Nancy Campbell is a writer and poet whose most recent book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, (published by Scribner UK, 2018) was reviewed for ClimateCultures by Sally Moss. Nancy’s previous posts for ClimateCultures are The Polar Tombola and A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7.   

Out of Range is Nick Drake‘s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a Cape Farewell voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change.

You can read three of Nick’s poems from Out of Range in full as part of his own contribution to the ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 ObjectsChronicle of the Incandescent LightbulbStill life: Plastic water bottle (used); and Stranger Thing. (And, in the first post in that series, you can also find my own reflections on the record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft that is the subject of Nick’s title poem, Out of Range).

You can watch a Royal Academy video showing The Dancing Satyr and discussing its discovery in the seas off Sicily in the 1990s. 

Waiting for the Gift of Sound and Vision

Time and tide: cows watch the coast.ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe launches a series exploring film and audio that open a space to reflect on change — choosing pieces on how human and non-human animals live, and how processes of time and tide shape our coasts.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes


The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…   

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On human-animal being

Mark Goldthorpe shares 73 Cows (15 mins)

In director Alex Lockwood’s beautifully thoughtful and moving film, 73 Cows (which I discovered via Aeon in October 2018), farmers Jay and Katja Wilde share their journey from raising beef cattle to animal-free farming — and the journey of the animals themselves. It’s an insightful encounter with the realities of one couple’s life on the land, living in close relationship with animals. I find it helpful because of its intensely personal focus cuts through some of the more familiar contest between opinions and the wielding of facts and figures in the debate on how we farm and feed ourselves and what ‘animal rights’ mean. It’s not trying to persuade me of anything, other than of our common ability to feel the weight of our own and others’ circumstances, and the tasks of questioning those circumstances and finding our own better way through them. 

As the post at Aeon puts it: “Coming to recognise them as individuals with rich inner lives rather than just ‘units of production’, Wilde eventually found the emotional burden of sending his cattle to the abattoir too crushing to bear … Melancholic yet stirring and gently hopeful, this short documentary … deftly traces the complexities of Wilde’s decisionmaking process. In doing so, it reaches far beyond the English countryside, asking viewers to reckon with the moral intricacies of eating animals.”

Whatever your views on the topics before or after watching the film, I imagine you will find something moving in the experience it brings you.


On coastal change

Mark Goldthorpe shares Appledore Time & Tide Bell (2 mins 40 secs)

People explore the Time and Tide Bell at Appledore in Devon
Appledore Time and Tide Bell
Click image to listen to the audio file

Artist Marcus Vergette has created a series of Time and Tide Bells around the UK, each marking the local high tide. “The rise of the water at high tide moves the clapper to strike the bell. Played by the movement of the waves, the bell creates a varying pattern. As sea level rises the periods of bell strikes become more frequent, and as submerged in the rising water the pitch will vary.” 

Five bells have been placed so far, at Appledore (Devon, England), Aberdyfi (Wales), Bosta (Isle of Lewis, Scotland), Trinity Buoy Wharf (London), and Cemaes (Anglesey, Wales). Marcus says of Appledore (where the first bell was installed in May 2009), “this estuary has some of the highest tides in Europe. Here they build ships, fish, trade to the Americas and to Russia. An important and historic port.” Each bell is inscribed with a text chosen by the local community. At Appledore, this is:

In thrall to the moon
rocked by her ebb and flow
I sing of swells beneath the stars
black waves at the storms height
new ships’ rhythmic passage west
seabirds in the dancing wake
all who set sail in sorrow or joy
and all who sleep below
 

So far, I’ve only visited the Trinity Wharf bell but I hope to experience each one. Trinity Wharf is where lighthouse keepers were trained and navigation buoys were made, so the resonance of its Time and Tide Bell with thoughts of future coastal hazards and adaptations is strong. But I chose the audio clip from Appledore instead because its soundtrack — the bell ringing against the waves — immediately said something to me of a place I’ve not yet been to (though I lived in Devon for a while) but which — like everywhere else — is undergoing change partly as a result of my actions, my existence. And the quiet, contrasting sounds of nature — the waves — and its cultural counterpart — the bell — captures a short moment within a changing relationship. 

Time and tide in the more-than-human

Is there a connection between my two selections? Not at first sight maybe, and I certainly didn’t select them with any conscious link in mind. But the same mind chose them … so now I think of the slow-yet-rapid timescales of change on our coasts and of our experience of them, over our lifetimes and in those sudden, dramatic coastal shifts of storm and flood and collapse; and now I think of the ‘bigger picture’ and the longer story behind the Wildes’ story, the currents of change in how humans have understood other animals throughout our history, how each of us chooses to live with the domesticated ones and the wild ones now. And I remember that change is possible, natural, necessary: sometimes it comes one person at a time, sometimes in the movement of the herd. And, as we meet or make these changes, or as we don’t, still the bell chimes. What do we miss when we don’t hear its notes under the noise of everyday life?

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

– William Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar (1599)

“But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.”

– Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes (1945, libretto by Montagu Slater).

***

And, then, after I’d written this post, reading a final BBC piece for the notes below, I discover that “Marcus came up with the Time and Tide idea following the foot-and-mouth outbreaks in 2001. Marcus and his wife Sally lost their stock of Angus cattle and Devon Closewool sheep in the epidemic and they were unable to leave their farm at Highampton because of the restrictions. Marcus’ permanent reminder to the awful events of 2001 is a bell, which hangs beside the village hall in Highampton.”

Time and tide: cows watch the coast in Ireland
Cows watching the coast, Ireland
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2007

Find out more

I discovered Alex Lockwood’s award-winning 73 Cows through Aeon (October 2018) and posted it to our Views from Elsewhere page before I realised that my response to this film needed a different space — and then that this space might be useful for others to share their film and audio discoveries. Do check out our Gifts of Sound and Vision page as more offerings appear.

You can discover more of Lockwood’s films at … Lockwood Film. A review at film site Short of the Week says that 73 Cowscaptures beautifully a crucible for Jay and Katja, and better than almost any documentary I’ve seen captures the moral weight of its action. Jay is torn by the logistical complexity of the farm’s change, and keenly feels the weight of obligation to his dead father from whom he inherited the farm. Yet, nobly, he is steadfast in his conviction. Agree or disagree with the ethics of animal husbandry, what else but courage do you call it when folks risk everything and defy societal norms to do what they feel is right?”

In an interview ahead of the Raindance Film Festival 2018 (where the film premiered), Alex said “I hope that when people watch 73 Cows that they really relate to Jay and the struggles that a lot of farmers must be secretly facing. Jay managed to completely turn his life around and do what he felt was right despite losing money, turning his back on his tradition and also going against the grain within his local community. So ultimately I see it as a hopeful film. Maybe people will watch it and feel like they can get over their own personal demons in the same way that Jay has gotten over his. That would be nice.” NB: This interview was for The New Current website, but is no longer available.

Sculptor Marcus Vergette discusses his project at Time and Tide Bell as “a permanent installation of bells around the UK rung by the sea at high tide. The Time and Tide Bell has been permanently sited at the high tide mark in five locations.” A new one is planned for Mablethorpe (Lincolnshire, England), with a description at the website of Transition Town Louth (which also has other coastal change related arts, Across the Seas).

In a short piece for the BBC website (3/9/10) for the creation of the Trinity Wharf bell, Marcus says “The Time and Tide Bell creates, celebrates and reinforces connections between our history and our environment … Here at Trinity Buoy Ward in Leamouth, it will serve as a powerful marker of sea level rise at the very heart of our maritime history.”

Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change

climate griefWriter Deborah Tomkins chairs Bristol Climate Writers, who meet to critique their poetry, science or nature writing, short stories or novels. She shares their discussion on ‘climate grief’ and how psychological responses to climate change influence their writing.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


I’m grateful to artist Perrin Ireland, who has agreed for us to use drawings from her Climate Grief graphic story to complement Deborah’s text.

***

This August, I came across The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, an article by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He writes about the profound climate grief he sometimes experiences, which he says makes sense to him and is helpful in focusing his mind, but also a crippling anxiety, which is less helpful. I forwarded the article to Bristol Climate Writers, inviting comments.

Our online discussion veered off in several different directions, so I’ll try and pull together some of the threads.

Climate grief and hope

First to respond was fellow ClimateCultures member David Thorpe, who didn’t find the article helpful. For him, the important question is why some people care and some don’t — is it down to personality type? “It was common knowledge in the 60s about deforestation, air pollution, antibiotics overprescription — in the Daily Express, for God’s sake. We knew in the 70s about climate change.” Society was supposed to change and adapt to take account of these serious issues, but that never happened. If it’s down to personality, David feels, this makes him angry; that our fate can be sealed by a majority who don’t care.

Peter Sutton agreed: “It’s a fair point about personality types – it’s kind of like knowing that gaining weight is bad for your health but this one cream cake can’t be bad, can it? We are generally, as a society, as a species (?), bad at thinking long-term…”

Later, David asked: “Are certain types more likely to think long-term — and they’re in the minority? Is this behaviour characteristic necessarily connected to what levels in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Need’ have been satisfied?”

Abraham Maslow states that our most basic needs have to be satisfied first (food, sleep, safety), before the needs for love and companionship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation or creativity. The question here is: can certain personality types look beyond these personal needs to global or societal needs, perhaps far in the future (as climate change has been perceived to be)? Some artists work at a perilous level of neglect of at least some of the more fundamental needs, yet still produce great art.

Caroline New was less sure about the robustness of the concepts of personality type and Maslow’s hierarchy, regarding their explanatory power. She preferred to reframe the question in terms of social positions and early experiences.

Caroline agrees that climate disengagement is partly fuelled by the psychological difficulty of taking on the reality of climate change; however, she believes that feelings of climate grief and dread are not inevitable responses, but are re-runs of what we felt as infants, before the age where they could be cognitively recorded as memories. This makes them harder to process and heal from. Climate change brings it all up: the powerlessness, the overwhelm, the impossibility of understanding a massive, out-of-control reality. Caroline mentioned experiencing the same feelings of grief, dread and fear when visiting Auschwitz or Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Yet these events have already happened.

For Caroline this means that “If we realise that our childhood sufferings make us vulnerable, we can separate today’s reality from those old injuries, and welcome the fact that we have the chance … to join with others … to take action in the present that will affect what happens to humanity for thousands of years.”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'. Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Psychologies of change

Others framed the answers in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter Barker said: “Some of the psychological reactions described in the article sound like PTSD, which can affect activists who work tirelessly on issues they really care about.”

Peter B believes that while campaigners are encouraged to focus on the important positive benefits of a low carbon economy, this fails to communicate effectively. He believes that humans are programmed to respond to threats and cautionary tales. “News is usually about trouble, danger, threats. Things we need to know about to survive. I think a clear picture is required to say, ‘This is what’s coming unless we get our shit together.’ I know it may turn some people off but the current message simply isn’t working.” He added that to tackle cognitive dissonance — the phenomenon of simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas — we need to be even clearer about cause and effect.

Emma Turnbull responded with thoughts about cognitive dissonance. The belief that “carrying on business-as-usual is viable; we can act without consequence”, is familiar, comforting, inherited and reinforced through generations. It conflicts with the other belief that “climate change is real and we need to radically change our lives”, which is an invitation to the unknown and to some harsh realisations and shakes our sense of security and societal structures. But she added that although this “second belief is like waking up in hell … it offers personal growth opportunities and collective evolution.”

Emma added: “I think it is useful at some level to acknowledge the potential losses from leaving behind the old systems and beliefs that have served us before now, because it helps to understand what needs to be replaced in new systems and culture e.g. emotional needs, personal purpose and value, and ritual or life course.”

She also mentioned PTSD, but in terms of society rather than the individual. “I think climate issues are deeply related to PTSD on a global level. Having an ambient sense of danger on a daily basis which is so powerful and seemingly beyond the power of an individual to correct, how can that not impact us all? When people are traumatised they have different reactions to it and can freeze when there’s a danger that there are no signs of escape from; dissociation allows them to zone out in a fog of denial. From researching the subject of trauma, I’d say that the way to help people move out of trauma and into a position of healing/action is to help them build emotional resources and a sense of safety. This is where I’d say positive narratives have a helpful role alongside more sobering storytelling.”  

For my part, I referred to feelings of climate grief and powerlessness, and the power of communication. “The more people talk about climate change, and admit their feelings of grief and helplessness, maybe this gives permission to other people to acknowledge these feelings too … I think we can draw on other social movements such as civil rights, homosexuality, etc — people talking and writing and acting — for some kind of roadmap … Depression can be a result of knowing something is terrible but not being able to do anything about it. So, in the West we have an epidemic of depression and other mental ill-health … could it have something to do with helplessness in the face of planetary destruction?”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Lesley Richardson quoted Denise Baden at the University of Southampton, who runs greenstories.org. “Denise argues that disaster movies etc haven’t worked — they cause us to bury our heads — while positive stories inspire and help us imagine the future we want via heroes and role models.”

Emma Giffard agreed that “Humans are hardwired to respond to threats but are much more able to respond to short-term immediate threats than distant ones”, recommending an article on the Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change.

Emma G also recommended Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course on the psychology. Only about 10% of ‘denialists’ are actually truly denying the science, while behind the other 90% there are other factors which relate to internal values.

David and Caroline also discussed mindsets, which influence expectations and behaviour. David wondered about how to change mindsets, citing placebo and nocebo effects. We know little about these effects, he said, but he’s keen on the use of shame, which has been effective with “paedophilia, drink-driving, smoking and seat-belt wearing, alongside evidence, public discussion/education around the long-term consequences … and legislation. Shame is a powerful peer-group influencer. Shaming frequent fliers, for example, could work in a similar way, but to work it needs a certain critical mass. Reaching that takes a long time. We’re getting there with plastics use.”

Caroline agreed there’s a place for shame, but as a major political mechanism it’s double-edged, since it draws on social disapproval and low self-esteem. She thought concepts of justice — “We have the right to require our government to formulate policies that protect us and future generations — and exemplary hopeful actions — see Plan B Earth” — are a better way forward.

Writing for change 

Finally, we touched on how these complex issues inform our writing, particularly in fiction. What is our motivation in writing about climate change, or our approach? How do the responses of hope vs grief play out in character and plot? What do we want to achieve — if anything?

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Peter B: “For me, the main motivation to write about climate change is to produce action. To alert, alarm even, people into responding. It may be fiction but it’s a way of engaging your reader’s imagination to the realities we are, or soon will be, facing, to avoid sleepwalking into disaster. If nothing else, at least we can be awake when it all goes tits up. I don’t write about climate change, but a world in which it is happening with my characters living and dealing with disintegrating systems — ecological, economic and social. The central plots revolve around my characters trying, in their own different ways, to survive (grief) or effect major change (hope).”

David: “From a narrative point of view, addressing the issues of feelings of powerlessness or apathy in the face of something as huge as climate change, one must remember that most people do not make a dramatic change in their lives until they have to. A convincing narrative would explore the significance and nature of this tipping point … Additionally, I would wish to explore this idea — for which there is some scientific evidence — that a certain level of stress in an emergency seems to paralyse most people … but there is a significant minority who are energised … and can take charge and try to rescue the situation.”

Emma T: “I want to inspire hope and action through positive visions of sustainable futures. I like to share with others the magic and healing I experience through deeply connecting with nature and contribute stories that reconnect us with the land. I also write to explore the trauma that is at the heart of and driving issues like climate change.”

Peter S: “I’m currently reading You are not human, by Simon Lancaster, which is all about metaphor; and he mentions this study, Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change, which investigates how language — and specifically the metaphors we use — affects how people perceive climate change. I’ve always drawn inspiration from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and as writers we should be hyperaware of what language we use, especially when our writing is a political act (but then, isn’t all writing a political act?)”

Emma G: “My novel is basically all about the cognitive dissonance required to be fully cognisant of environmental issues and still function as a modern human — it’s basically about the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health. Just need someone to publish it, that’s all …”

And I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response. Seeking publication…


Find out more

Bristol Climate Writers meet monthly in central Bristol, for discussion and critique, and to plan public workshops. There are roughly twenty members, writing poetry, science, nature, short stories or novels. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow @BrisClimWrit and @tomkins_deborah

You can follow some of the BCW members mentioned here at their websites: Caroline New Pete Sutton David Thorpe 

Bristol Climate Writers is running a writing workshop, Finding the Positive: Dystopias and Utopias in a Changing Climate, on Sunday 28 October 2018 as part of Bristol Festival of Literature – see our Events calendar

Peter Kalmus’ article, The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, appeared in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world (9th August 2018): “Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing — but also connection and love for those things.” You can follow Peter on Twitter: @ClimateHuman and his website: becycling.life

Other resources mentioned in this post include:

Brian Kateman’s article, Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change, appeared on Columbia University’s State of the Planet site (9th January 2012). 

Simon Lancaster’s book, You are not Human, is published by Biteback Publishing (2018).

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was described in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. There is a useful guide to the original concept and recent developments, by Saul McLeod at Simply Psychology (updated 2018).

The free online course, Making Sense of Climate Denial, is provided by the University of Queensland (and is featured on our Anthropocene Learning page, alongside other free online courses).

Greenstories.org was a short story competition organised by the University of Southampton in 2018, and the anthology of winning stories, Resurrection Trust, will be published in 2019. The site has a section of useful story ideas and resources.

Finally, you might like to read a couple of other articles and an illustrated story relating to climate grief, which I discovered while bringing Deborah’s post to the site:

Jennifer Atkinson’s article, Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake, which appeared in High Country News (29th May 2018). Atkinson teaches environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, and after watching her students “struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years … decided to offer a new seminar on ‘Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.’ When registration opened, every seat filled. But after the local media began reporting on the class, a flood of derisive emails and phone calls poured into my office, and the newspaper comment sections filled up with responses mocking today’s ‘absurd. college courses and the students who attend them.” Despite this, “direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow.”

Writer Meehan Crist’s Besides, I’ll be dead is her review in London Review of Books (22nd February 2018) of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World. Crist raises a psychological paradigm of ‘ambiguous loss’, introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Boss when studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. Boss “coined the term to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding. Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. … Grief is stalled by uncertainty.”

The illustrations throughout this ClimateCultures post come from the graphic story Climate Grief, The emotional reality of global warmingby artist Perrin Ireland. Perrin works with scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists to tell their science stories through animations, visual essays, and infographics. You can find the full story and more of her work at www.experrinment.com 
'Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
‘Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

And the passage from Joanna Macey that Perrin quotes in her story come from Macey’s lifelong activism in The Work that Reconnects, which began in the 1970s as “despair and empowerment” work, evolved in Deep Ecology and has become a network. 

***

What do you think?

Do you experience Climate Grief? Do you have other ways of exploring, explaining or addressing the issues that Deborah and her fellow Bristol Climate Writers have raised here? ClimateCultures would like to publish further accounts and discussions on climate grief and other responses to our environmental and climate predicaments; do use the Contact Form to get in touch!

The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Wide Sargasso Sea, the classic novel by Jean Rhys: her prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and a story of blurred, alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference in race and gender.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes   


A copy of Wide Sargasso Sea goes to Nancy Campbell for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover. Photograph: Francoise Lacroix
Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Photograph: Francoise Lacroix © 2000 Source: Penguin Books

The Fall

Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.

Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.

One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?

The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.

No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones — more cunning, that’s all.’

And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.

Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.

For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.

I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.

An alien heat

Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”

It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.

They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Artist: unknown

Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.

Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:

‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’

‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’

She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.

She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the one she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”

It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.

Sargasso sea — a dangerous place

In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:

Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.

And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:

The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:

I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’

She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.

What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.

It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’

Sargasso Sea
Sargasso Sea
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”

More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.

But what are you doing here, you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.

Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.

And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:

The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.

 


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Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday FeatureSarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”

The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”

Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”

A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”