Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link

Citizen Artist Yky explores urban resilience and the importance of building joint commitments by experts and artists to improve our understanding of this concept in ‘citizen science’ and other approaches to empower citizens in planning for the future.

 

2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes


Recently, three publications pointed out the difficulty for most people to understand the deep changes in our environment. At first sight, those publications have very little in common. But ultimately, the three converge towards the same conclusion: a link is missing in how to empower urban citizens as full stakeholders in the process of mitigation/adaptation that should improve their well-living and well-being.

The first — To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story — was an article about the Viable Cities programme, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden in the field of sustainable cities. Their conclusion is beyond dispute: the scientific community may understand the complex concepts of the Anthropocene, but without an appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people for a simple reason: facts are not enough; we need the right narrative.

The second — How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos — was written by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, Belgium. He points out that facts and perceptions are independent tipping points, in particular when assessing the social consequences of climate change. Commonly, a tipping point is a tiny perturbation that may alter the whole stability of a system. The theory of tipping points has been recently used to refer to climate change, but as explained by the author, it often overlooks the role of inequalities, perceptions, governance, solidarity networks, and cultural values in their evaluation of the future social impacts of climate change.

The third event was the emergence of The Freaks, a collective representing 68 French artists and prominent representatives of the cultural scene committed to 42 steps to ‘save the planet’. Some of them did reconsider our current consumption paradigm, others did not and, except for one, all of them were individual recommendations. No need to say that this initiative is welcome; but the legitimate question is whether it might better impact community awareness of climate change than the continuous warnings of climate experts’?

Citizen Science for urban resilience

Paradoxically, experts recognize the importance of including civil society as stakeholders, as shown by the emergence of ‘Citizen Science’. Though laudable, this approach is most of the time ‘thought by experts for experts’ with no obvious operational application at the citizen’s level. Some independent initiatives gathering either experts or artists have been shown to play an active role in developing community awareness on matters related to urban resilience. But few have brought experts and artists together. This post argues in favour of a joint commitment between artists and experts to improve understanding of urban resilience.

Déjeuner, by artist Yky, shows two people eating lunch facing a wall at Les Grandes Voisins, a former hospital. Yky has used the wall to show text on Urban Resilience, from sources that inspire his work.
Déjeuner
Artist: Yky © 2019 https://www.resi-city.com

The first question coming to anyone’s mind will be the definition of urban resilience. It seems that there is a huge ambiguity on this point. In 2015, Sara Meerow and colleagues from the University of Michigan found 25 different definitions, all of them published by editors of recognized journals. None of them appeared satisfactory. In Defining urban resilience: a review, Meerow gave the 26th. This shows the difficulty in translating a concept into operations across many threats and challenges faced by urban citizens. However, as explained below, it is possible to elaborate upon a simple definition: an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations. Let’s also recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits, while a description opens the limits. Perhaps forgetting this distinction, many of the expert definitions of urban resilience will appear too complex to be understood by non-expert citizens, and this will not create the desirable conditions for a pedagogical process.

Art as a pedagogic tool

Using art as a pedagogic tool to enable experts and artists to describe urban resilience, and better explain the complexity of this concept, requires some guidelines.

The first one is to understand the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. A lot of publications are available online and can help us acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage in a learning process. They will be helpful for learning how and why we need to give a simple definition of the concept while, at a further stage, being able to brainstorm on the limits of the definition.

The second guideline is to share a common language between artists and experts. This is needed to build a joint productive activity and will help artists to translate their message and emotions and engage in a dialogical process with citizens. With no clear understanding, there is no possible empowerment; and the stakes are too high for us to conceptualize urban resilience without actually bringing operational results, considering the current threats of hazards and their related disasters. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary provided by Ilan Kelman in his paper Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? is a valuable source of information.

The third requirement is selecting the appropriate artistic approach. The needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking for the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky and potentially off-topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens.

From theory to practice

Recalling that mental pictures precede spoken language, sociologists have described how virtuality and reality interact with each other and ultimately lead to a new perception of the world. Fictional narratives help to transform our own representation of reality. Representing the reality of the world becomes a virtual act and the reality of this virtuality plays a fundamental role in the sense we give to our actions. Fictional narratives are therefore a powerful way to build the required tripartite relationship ‘virtuality-reality-action’ between artists, experts and citizens. The scenario needs to be built beforehand in such a way that all matters relevant to the hazard (potentially) impacting citizens have been thoroughly discussed between the expert and the artist. The fictional example below makes use of one of my photographic works, Shakes, selected by the World Bank in Washington DC for the Art of Resilience exhibition.

Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky, explores urban resilience by presenting two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake), the second the impact on a non-resilient city.
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+ (click for larger image)
Artist: Yky © 2018 https://www.resi-city.com

This work questions the challenge of implementing an urban resilience strategy after a widespread seismic destruction. With architectural symbols, broken reflections, and linear designs that at once feel as much like an earthquake monitor as they do a heart monitor, it talks about an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. The approach is here described as a ‘theatrical scenette’ with a teaching process that will need to encompass the following:

  • the sociological causes of so-called ‘natural disasters’ (recognizing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards, while at the same time recalling the consequences of human activity on nature in the Anthropocene).
  • the relation between resilience and vulnerability;
  • the question of bouncing back (to business as usual) vs bouncing forward;
  • a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes;
  • a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens;
  • a plan of actions.

The fiction of Shakes

Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.

Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about Urban Resilience when everything looks destroyed?

Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”

Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?

Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?

Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high income person can be less vulnerable than a low income person. Can you figure how?

All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …

Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.

Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threatened communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.

Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?

Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by (so-called) ‘natural disasters’ and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a ‘normal’ situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?

In Shakes as in my other works, my photographic technique makes use of a well-known property of argentic paper, which is to darken when exposed to light. This will produce a diptych of two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake) while the second one darkens in time. The comparison between both images will highlight the related disaster and the questioning which will be used to support the pedagogic work with the expert. By doing so, my works contribute to engaging citizens in considering the most appropriate way to operationalize resilience.

It goes without saying that all form of art can use such an approach, as long as the cognitive apprenticeship has been finalized with the expert.


Find out more 

The World Bank’s The Art of Resilience exhibition of artworks from around the world includes three of Yky’s photographic works: The Japanese Paradox; Shakes; La Seine. You can read more on the issues explored Shakes in Yky’s blog post Can urban resilience cope with earthquakes? (9/7/18), and explore his technique in other photographic works on his site.

To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story, by Feargus O’Sullivan and published by CityLab (11/11/19), features Per Grankvist, chief storyteller for Sweden’s Viable Cities programme. Grankvist’s job is to communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.  

How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos, by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, was published by Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global engagement, for a regular column for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (8/11/19).  

The Freaks is a collective of artists and personalities who are committed to adopting new behaviours to fight against over-consumption, pollution, global warming and protect biodiversity. 

Citizen Science is defined by National Geographic as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” It is explored in this paper by Susanne Hecker et al (2/12/19) in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1): How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents. To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term ‘citizen science’ is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term ‘citizen science’ in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities … Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool.”

Defining urban resilience: a review, by Sara Meerow, Joshua Newell & Melissa Stults, was published in Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (2016) 3. It “concludes that the term has not been well defined. Existing definitions are inconsistent and underdeveloped with respect to incorporation of crucial concepts found in both resilience theory and urban theory”; and identifies “six conceptual tensions fundamental to urban resilience: (1) definition of ‘urban’; (2) understanding of system equilibrium; (3) positive vs. neutral (or negative) conceptualizations of resilience; (4) mechanisms for system change; (5) adaptation versus general adaptability; and (6) timescale of action. To advance this burgeoning field, more conceptual clarity is needed. This paper, therefore, proposes a new definition of urban resilience. This definition takes explicit positions on these tensions, but remains inclusive and flexible enough to enable uptake by,
and collaboration among, varying disciplines. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the definition might serve as a boundary object, with the acknowledgement that applying resilience in different contexts requires answering: Resilience for whom and to what? When? Where? And why?”

Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? by Ilan Kelman was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science (2018) 9:281–291: “Like other subjects, disaster risk science has developed its own vocabulary with glossaries. Some keywords, such as resilience, have an extensive literature on definitions, meanings, and interpretations. Other terms have been less explored. This article investigates core disaster risk science vocabulary that has not received extensive attention [and] draws out understandings of disasters and disaster risk science, which the glossaries do not fully provide in depth, especially vulnerability and disasters as processes.”

You can find articles on the virtual and the real, in French, in these discussions of the 2009 book Le Réel et le virtuel (in which “sociologist André Petitat examines the relationship between action and representation, exploring notions of interpretive plurality and underlining how fictional imagination contributes to the construction of real action.”): Grand résumé de Le Réel et le virtuel. Genèse de la compréhension, genèse de l’action by André Petitat and Comment l’imaginaire construit le réel by Francis Farrugia.

For another read on resilience and vulnerability, you could read Mark Goldthorpe’s post Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking, a review of Elizabeth Rush’s book 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.

Othering — on Woodlands, Maps and Language

Artist Jo Dacombe explores the othering of woodlands through maps and language as bordering us off from the natural world, and looks to ways to reconnect.

 


2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has written that Othering is a defining feature of Western culture:

“Some authors (notably Said, 1985, 1994) have argued that Western identity and culture are fundamentally forged by an othering logic, one that dehumanizes or devalues other people, such as primitives, uncivilized, orientals, blacks, non-believers, women and so forth. An essential feature of othering is denying the Other his/her own voice, denying him/her the opportunity to speak for him/herself and instead attributing qualities, opinions and views that refer to one’s own identity and culture.”

Othering occurs to non-human subjects too. It also occurs in relation to our environments. This Othering of Nature has been discussed by thinkers such as Latour and Levi-Strauss; the Enlightenment enabled this dichotomy in order for humans to exploit nature to their own ends.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Emphasising intellectual and scholarly methods and using reason for gaining knowledge, the ideas of the Enlightenment worked against religious, spiritual or traditions of knowledge and thus elevated the European intellect to the highest status. One could argue that this set up the eventual split between the human world of reason and intellect, and Other worlds of spirituality or non-humans. Thinkers of the Enlightenment saw nature as a source to study and the wild as something to be controlled, to be subjugated under the will of humans, and thus the natural world could be exploited by human domination to suit their needs.

Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing

Othering creates borders. We try to describe our environments using maps. We draw geography and delineate between this area and that. In essence, borders are made-up, imagined edges. They may make our map drawing a little easier and our politics more manageable, but they are still not real. Birds and animals have a sense of territory, sometimes, though perhaps not all of them. But certainly plants don’t stick to their own area in quite the same way; perhaps they have a more accidental way of landing and then surviving where the conditions are right. Animals, plants and birds all attempt to find a space in which the area and resources are what they need to survive. Humans carve out their territories for similar reasons, but there seems to be a more calculated motive, which can become about expansion for the sake of it, going too far with ideas of world domination. There seems more ego in it.

I love maps. They can be beautiful works of art and fascinating time capsules of a place. However they are also powerful, and as with all power theirs can be used or abused. A map presents a place from the perspective of the mapmaker. Every mapmaker has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and this will depend on what the mapmaker thinks is important, corresponding to his or her own personal bias. Maps are all about drawing borders, identifying areas of particular characteristics, placing points of interest within contexts; sometimes imposing those contexts. Thus, maps can be tools of Othering. By creating maps of particular areas, we also create Other areas. 

Oliver Rackham writes of the changing maps of woodlands over the centuries. Ancient woods marked on maps appear now much as they were in earlier maps of 1580; zigzag outlines, boundaries that go around individual large trees, maps drawn to describe the natural boundaries set out on the ground, not from a draughtman’s office. Straight lines on maps do not appear until 1700, when woods started to be grubbed out or enlarged. These altered boundaries appear regularly curved or straight. 

“In Planned Countryside the irregular shapes of ancient woods sit awkwardly among the straight hedges laid out around them by Enclosure Act commissioners. In Ancient Countryside, the ghost of a grubbed-out wood may haunt the map as the irregularly-shaped perimeter of a ‘Wood farm’ whose internal hedges are anomalously straight.”

These imposed boundaries were due to Enclosures of land, and marking out forest areas as royal preserves. Gamekeeping in Britain specifically contributed to separating people from woodlands, unlike in France, Germany and Switzerland where “ancient woods are everyone’s heritage; in Britain alone have we lost that birthright, and with it our knowledge and love of the woods.”

Putting Nature in its place

And yet we do have a love for the woods, but I would argue that this is a different sort of love from the one that Rackham describes. For many of us, woodlands are like a brief flirtation rather than a commitment like marriage. We go to the woods to escape. We see them as places that are separate from our everyday lives, and that is why we love them. They are places for ‘nature’ and reserves for wildlife. We are happy with wildlife when it is in ‘its place’, in other words, not in our place.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 1. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 1
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Woodlands are often ‘other’ to the modern human world. They are a place of nature, a retreat, something to be preserved in a ‘natural’ and untouched state, not to be interfered with by human activity. They are to be kept for us to enjoy when we visit, but not to become part of our modern way of life. The two things are separate.

On the one hand this could be positive; the Othering of the natural environment means we have an urge to conserve it, to admire it, not to interfere with it too much, surely this is a good thing. However my view is that the Othering of nature means that we become more and more disconnected from our natural environments and from woodlands. They become a desirable thing for our leisure time, but there is a danger then that perhaps they are not a necessity when resources are scarce. Woodlands are valued and magical, they are precious to us in a way, like a beautiful object kept in a glass case. In my book Imagining Woodlands I have written about the Enchantment of woodlands and the notion that they are faeryworlds, or otherworlds. But these faery stories and folk tales add to the Othering of woodlands as distinct from the human world.

This has not always been the case. Once the woodlands in Britain were an important part of everyday human lives. People worked in and with forests. Woodlands were places of industry as much as leisure, where wood was gathered for a variety of uses, livestock were grazed there, and charcoal was produced as fuel. It is my belief that when woodlands were connected to us in this way, as something we lived on, relied on and thus valued, that the woodlands were more likely to be conserved by us as something essential. It was not Other. It was a part of us, and we were a part of the woods.

Our language contributes to this act of Othering. Our language both reflects and shapes the way we perceive things. It is almost impossible to speak about the natural world without Othering it – there I go again! Just by uttering those words, ‘the natural world’, I have made it separate from the alternative, the ‘human world’.  Yet there are cultures that do not have a word for nature because they do not see it as a separate entity, such as small scale communities in the Amazon and the Malaysian rainforests.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 2. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 2
Photograph by Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Currently there is a national drive to plant more trees, to mitigate the effect of imminent climate breakdown. To re-wild, and re-forest. But these things will not overcome the Othering of the woodlands. Perhaps planting new street-trees would be more effective; integrating swathes of trees into our everyday lives and right up to our front doors.

I grew up on a street called The Avenue. It was lined with large-leaved linden trees. Every day I would say hello to these trees, and watch as they sprouted new twigs at the base, bright red new sprouts that would bear pale yellow-green, large heart-shaped leaves. I would notice the colours changing with the seasons, fear the wasps that would gather in late summer to sip from the stickiness on the leaves, and worry about the black spots that sometimes appeared. I knew those trees well, and they were a part of my daily life. Now I’m older, I still feel a particular affinity with linden trees and I always recognise them and feel that strong connection. Other trees I have got to know since, but it has often been a more forced relationship, as I have felt I ought to know more species’ names and learn about them. But linden trees I grew up with, and I still miss them now that I live on a road without trees.

Perhaps a change in our language could help too. There is a fascinating section in Rackham’s book about the many Anglo-Saxon words for woodlands, many for which their specific meanings have been lost. These words demonstrate the greater connection they had with woodlands, and how they reflected the way they thought of woodlands in different contexts. For example, feld is an open space in sight of woodlands, with which to contrast it. A ley or a hurst appear to mean inhabited space surrounded by woodland. These words show how woodlands were a part of a wider, connected landscape, rather than a separated area on its own. Perhaps our language needs to expand to reflect this way of thinking again; to develop a lexicon to describe landscape relationships rather than separate features.

Old English consisted of a vocabulary of short words, and so used composite words to expand the vocabulary, which we know from the long saga poems such as Beowulf. For example, a whale is referred to as an ‘ocean-rider’, using two words combined to be descriptive of the animal. Often this was a way of creating the correct alliteration that was required by the poem, but it also produced beautifully descriptive new words.

I wonder if this is a way we could create new words to better describe our landscapes? To start to generate those connections between objects and surroundings, to embed things fully into the landscape and the way we speak of it? ‘Street-tree’ is one example, placing the tree in a particular type of location. How could we use words to better describe the different types of woodland? ‘Slope-spruce-holt’ for trees on a mountain side? (Holt being the Old English word for a wood of predominantly one species.) ‘Poplar-shimmer-shaw’ for the effect of a line of white poplar trees from a distance when the wind turns their leaves over to show the pale side? (Shaw meaning a small wood on a boundary.)

How would this way of using language change our relationship with the natural world around us? Would naming the specificity of woodlands make them more personal, more valuable, and better connect us to them?


Find out more

Jo Dacombe is currently creating a book of words and images called Imagining Woodlands, which will be available in 2020. You can read Jo’s earlier ClimateCultures post, Bone Landscapes, describing her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.

Oliver Rackham’s classic The History of the Countryside was originally published in 1986 and is to be reissued by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2020.

You can read Yiannis Gabriel’s 2012 post The Other and Othering – a short introduction at his website.

And you can explore The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017), published by Penguin. The book “seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us” and has generated a set of songs, available from the same site. 

A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


1,980 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Beneath What Is Visible, A Vast Shadow

Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker uses an innovative take on the camera obscura to uncover visible and invisible networks and complex histories embedded in a Scottish peninsula whose water-and-landscape is home to nuclear arsenals, peace activists and pilgrims’ spiritual traditions.


2,720 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes 


Last November, I joined other artists presenting work as part of Planetary Processing, a gathering for whom photography is a mode of speculation on geological, celestial and bodily systems. I showed prints and text from my latest project, Trinity.

I created this body of work during residencies at Cove Park arts centre in Scotland, where I could engage with the unique ecology of the Rosneath peninsula: the landscape itself, the networks visible and invisible that have been imposed upon it and the complex histories embedded in its fabric.

Beneath land and water

The peninsula is dominated by the presence of HMNB Faslane and RNAD Coulport, the home of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Existing alongside these sprawling sites are the small, temporary constructions of itinerant activists — locations such as the Peace Wood bear traces of their occupation.

Trinity references the early Christian pilgrims that voyaged to remote corners of the British Isles, such as Rosneath, in search of sanctuary; peregrini who sought to use the elemental power of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment. However, it also alludes to the contemporary use of the land — promised into the service of conflict, boundaries delineated upon the surface that pay no heed to its deep geological history.

I made these images using my own ‘backpack obscura’ — a custom-built camera obscura designed to allow me to capture large format images in remote locations. A light-tight tent, it uses rudimentary materials and a simple meniscus lens to project the desired image onto the floor of the camera. As well as being my means of image making, it also served as my shelter from the elements.

After two extended stays on the peninsula I felt I had enough material to begin the editing process. However, I soon realised that conveying the depth and breadth of what I had experienced was going to be difficult using image alone. The idea of creating a publication seemed the perfect solution as a means of expanding and extending upon my work. I feel the combination of critical and creative texts really help to locate the imagery whilst also providing a platform from which the reader can access the project.

Image shows cover design of Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Design by Loose Joints.
Trinity, by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019

What follows, with some of the images I took, are edited extracts from the two texts that have been provided for the book: Not Negative, an essay by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Trinity, writer Nick Hunt’s creative memoir of his stay in 2002 at the peace camp near to the naval base that’s home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent of three Vanguard-class submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads, where he engaged in several direct actions against the base.

Not negative

an edited extract of an essay by Martin Barnes

Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light. Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light-sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.

Photographer by Oliver Raymond-Barker
Photographer: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channelled onto a light-sensitive surface.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white groundsheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.

Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of homemade structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …

Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and storytelling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half-remembered dream.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Trinity

an edited extract of an essay by Nick Hunt

He approaches from the south, a small man in a ragged robe. He comes carefully through these woods. There is no razor wire. Sunlight and shadows slide off him, spiderwebs break silently. The skeletons of dead leaves cling to his rough hair.

Behind him is the Irish Sea, cold and grey, with white-capped waves. On the rocky shoreline lies an abandoned coracle. Crabs have made their homes in it. Its willow ribs press on its skin. He will not need it now, for there is no return.

He traces the long line of the loch, stitching himself into the land. Around him is an interweave of oak and ash and pine. He picks his way through tangled thorn. There is no smooth road. Beyond the trees a wet wind blows over open water.

It rises up from deep below. Its shoulder breaks the surface. Water thunders from its flank. The daylight makes it gleam. For long months it has been submerged in darkness and in secrecy, nursing its destructiveness. It has seen the bottom of the world, the undersides of ice floes. Now its weight is buoyancy. It surfaces to claim the air.

Beneath what is visible is a vast shadow.

The call goes up just after dawn. I stumble from my tent. People are staggering around, pulling off their sleep-warm clothes. I spill coffee on myself. Someone blows a trumpet. The loch is hidden by the trees and I can’t see what the others have seen. There is something I’ve agreed to do in this eventuality but I do not know what it is. My brain is still stunned with sleep. Then I know again.

People are running to the loch. I follow without shoes. We leave the camp, cross the road and stand upon the lapping shore. There are no police around. There is no time to think. From the wet heap at my feet I select a thick black skin and drag my legs into it, heave it over my chest and arms, being flayed in reverse. It is clammy, tight and cold. Its smell is like an old tomb. We wade into icy water clad in neoprene.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He passes dwellings in the trees. Bivouacs and benders. Turf-roofed huts and tents. The camps of charcoal burners. Through the smoke he glimpses them, the gentle outcasts of these woods. Those who fled from villages. Those who are misshapen. He sees them gathered by their fires telling stories, singing songs. He blesses them as he walks by. They do not notice him.

Behind him are the gilded robes that he shed for plain sackcloth. His hand exchanged a crosier for a staff of blackthorn.

These woodlands end against the shore and he walks the pebble beach, the wind harsh upon his skin, following the undulating highlands with his eye. A seabird turns in the air. There is a stink of wrack. He could build a chapel here but something tells him to walk on, away from the long water with its access to the sea. He does not trust those depths. That shadow in the water.

The grey waves part on either side of its gliding topmost fin and join again behind, leaving no trace of its passing. It monstrous mass keeps pace below. Seabirds keep their distance. As it slides towards its home it scans the confines of this sound, reading depths and distances, alert to any obstacle. Its brutal, sleek intelligence seems evolved and not designed.

In its wake, a flying machine hangs and buzzes watchfully.

There were glaciers here once that tore strips from the land. Then the sea flooded in. It travels in their absence.

The first steps into coldness hurt, the next ones not so much. The water grips my legs, my thighs, my chest. I start to paddle. At first we cluster in a bunch but soon the swimmers scatter out. Spectators gather on the shore, shouting exhortations.

The low horizon of the hills goes up and down beyond the waves. Small waves slap against my mouth. I concentrate on breathing. The water feels very dense, made sluggish by the cold. This is not my element. The distance feels hopeless.

Far out, a noisy helicopter turns slow circles in the sky. It must be half a mile away. Below it I can see the shape of something great and dark.

Photographby Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He wanders enraptured, ruptured. The sunlight breaks upon him. On the shore he falls to his knees with the immensity and stares upon the awesome light that floods the shadows of the world. The god of love is everywhere. It is all a marvel. He closes his dazzled eyes and the world appears in negative, the black sky and the white trees, the incandescent veins of leaves, the bleached water opening to some great revelation. A vision flashes in his mind of blank structures on the shore, hard-edged and unknowable, working to some vast and terrible design. The revelation fills him but he cannot understand it. When he opens his eyes again, everything is as it is. The trees, the stones, the small waves are fixed in their positions.

It registers nothing of these things. Nothing penetrates. Its mind, if it has a mind, is as blank as a stone. It has almost reached its home. Its velocity starts to slow.

We doggy-paddle, thankful but defeated, back towards the land. As I focus on the shore I see a man stooping there. Water flows from his cupped hands. He gazes somehow through me. I think about solid ground, warm clothes, a welcome fire. When I look again he is no longer there.

Note from Nick Hunt inside Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019.

Find out more

Planetary Processing took the form of a six-month artist-led peer forum, funded by Artquest and hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. 

A fully designed mock-up of Oliver’s photobook, Trinity, was shortlisted in the 2019 Kassel Dummy Award. “This year we again invited all photographers worldwide to take part and to send us their unpublished photobook mock-up. In total, 362 photobooks from 37 countries from all over the world were sent in.” The book will travel around the world for the next six months for various exhibitions.

The book is designed by Loose Joints: “For this sprawling publication we used an interplay of papers, sizes and colours to re-structure Barker’s immersive images, which are made using a backpack-mounted camera obscura to make and print photographs in situ. The result is a swirling mixture of tones and sensations…”

In his essay, Martin Barnes says, “There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye-opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood … Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location … by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’. … His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force.”

Nick Hunt (a fellow ClimateCultures Member) adds in a note to his piece that “St. Modan, the son of an Irish chieftain, renounced his position as an abbot to live as a hermit in the 6th century. His relics are kept at Rosneath Church on the shore of Gare Loch.”

The full texts of Martin’s and Nick’s pieces, Not Negative and Trinity respectively, are available at Oliver’s website. Oliver’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone, explores his encounter — on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry — with a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.

In his essay, Martin Barnes refers to the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, the account of that hero’s encounters with the monster Grendel, who terrorised humanity from his lair beneath the shadowy mere. For a discussion on an alternative imagining of Grendel and Beowulf and the perilous meeting of worlds, see Bringing Our Monsters Back Home, my review of John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel

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.


2,860 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


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

***

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.

Update: In June 2019, Public Books published an Elizabeth Rush interview by Elena Passarello, exploring lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines.