Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

For our latest Members' Post, it's a real pleasure to welcome Lisa Lucero, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. Lisa has been conducting archaeology projects in Belize for almost 30 years, where she focuses on the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management among the Classic Maya. Her most recent project involves exploring collapsed sinkholes fed by groundwater for evidence of ancient Maya offerings and their climate and landscape histories.

I’m walking through the humid tropical jungles of Belize, a small country in Central America where many more people lived in the past than today. As usual, I am not alone. I never go into the jungle without my Maya field assistants. Even with a GPS unit and compass, one can get lost quickly. The jungle is their backyard, and they know everything about it; their knowledge of wild fruits, berries, medicinal plants, building materials — it’s truly astounding. They also help me conduct my archaeology research — understanding how the ancient Maya sustainably lived for thousands of years in the face of two intersecting challenges: seasonal drought, and periods of climate instability. Too much or not enough rain was a constant, either short- or long-term, and yet the Maya persevered in the southern Maya lowlands (SML) of present day Belize, northern Guatemala, and southeastern Mexico.

Belize research crew shot, June 2017
(Lisa Lucero in purple shirt).
Photo taken by project drone.

How did the Maya accomplish this? My research attempts to address this question because I know (not believe) that there are lessons we can learn from the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) that are relevant today. Let me explain.

As an archaeologist, my role is to explore how our ancestors lived. When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was interested in the emergence of hierarchical political systems. How did the earliest leaders get others to hand over the fruits of their labor? Many years and several publications later, what emerged was this crucial fact: climate change matters. No matter where or when in the world, climate change has played a significant role in shaping political histories. And it still does. I illustrate this point with a brief narrative on how Classic Maya kings arose and fell, and how the rest of the population adapted — and still do, as the millions of Maya currently living attest.

A fateful dependency

The setting. While the jungle may seem homogenous, it is not. The karstic topography gave rise to high biodiversity and a mosaic of dispersed resources, including fertile soils. This resulted in scattered farmsteads where the majority of Maya lived, as well as hundreds of urban centers with varying power based on agricultural surplus and water. While there was an abundance of rainfall during the annual seven-month rainy season, much of it percolated through the porous limestone bedrock. Surface water was thus relatively limited. Everything, thus, was rainfall dependent. Key factors so far: noticeable seasonality, high biodiversity, dispersed pockets of fertile soils, rainfall dependency.

Map of Maya area
Image generated by L J Lucero © 2018

It is this vital reliance on rainfall that is key to understanding the Classic Maya — their cosmology, agricultural schedules and strategies, livelihood, political power, and so on. The largest urban centers and concomitant support population and the most powerful kings emerged in areas with plentiful agricultural land, but without surface water such as lakes and rivers: Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol in Belize, to name a few powerhouses. But, you might be asking, if the majority of Maya lived scattered throughout the landscape, how did kings get farmers to contribute their labor, goods and services? Such efforts resulted in what most people think about when the topic of the Classic Maya comes up — urban centers with palaces, temples, ornate tombs, massive open plazas, ballcourts, elaborate hieroglyphs, inscribed stone monuments, beautifully painted ceramics, carved jade, shaped obsidian, etc. The answer: water. More specifically, artificial reservoir systems that increasingly became interwoven not only with center design, but with political power.

During the agricultural intensive periods of the rainy season, farmers worked in their fields. In the dry season in areas without much surface water, they congregated at centers for drinking water. In exchange for access to water, Maya commoners/farmers maintained royal buildings and lifestyle; they also participated in public events and ceremonies sponsored by kings, met up with friends, bartered goods at markets, and so on.

This system was in place for nearly a thousand years in the southern Maya lowlands, beginning c. 100 BCE until c. 850 CE. By 900 CE kings had disappeared. There are two parts to address how their political systems ‘collapsed’: path dependency; and several prolonged droughts. ‘Path dependency’ basically is putting all your eggs in one basket; as financial advisors tell us: diversify, diversify. Maya kings relied on reservoirs to draw in their subjects who, in turn, funded the political economy. Thus, if reservoirs failed, so too did kings.

The end of power

Analysis of annual rings of speleothems (stalactites or stalagmites) from caves in the Maya area shows that several multiyear droughts struck the Maya area between 800 and 900 CE. They impacted everyone. Reservoirs dried up and, eventually, people abandoned urban centers and kings. While a minority remained in the interior southern Maya lowlands, former home to the largest and most powerful centers, most emigrated in all directions in search of water and other resources to take care of their families. They migrated along rivers, lakes and coasts. Maritime trade flourished, as did northern lowland centers. The northern lowlands, with thinner soils, make up most of the Yucatán Peninsula, which also is at a lower elevation; that latter feature exposes lots of accessible water in the form of over 7,000 cenotes or collapsed sinkholes that are fed by groundwater.

The southern Maya lowland centers were abandoned for good; hundreds of them. Kings lost power because they relied on reservoirs as the linchpin to draw in subjects. When reservoir levels dropped in the face of the multiple prolonged droughts, kings failed in upholding their duty to provide dry season water. Their subjects left. Perhaps if the kings had diversified their political portfolio…

Aerial shot of Tikal, Guatemala.
Photo by L. J. Lucero © 2018

So, what are the lessons? First, we can’t continue with things as usual if we want to substantially address issues wrought by our changing climate; this includes not expecting new technology alone to save the day; and second, life-changing adaptations are called for — for the sakes of our families.


Find out more

More information on Lisa’s research publications is provided at her University of Illinois webpage, including open access journal articles such as a 2011 paper, Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management and another excellent article Lisa wrote on the University of Illinois anthropology blog, Exploring Maya life.

You can find out more about Lisa’s and colleagues’ research at the website of the Valley of Peace Archaeology project. 

 

 

 

In the Path of Its Beam

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

 

Signals from the Edge #1

— approx reading time: 7 minutes

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? As we approach the start of our second year, ClimateCultures offers Members a new challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? 

Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create – whether it’s an image, a short text, a sound, a story board, a dream sequence, a combination of any of these or something other – it might be strong and unambiguous when we perceive it, or weak, barely detected within a background noise; but it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. (You might also want to play with the idea of the background noise in some way, or omit it entirely and offer us just the signal, filtered).

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time or in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. If it carries a message, is it explicit or implicit, coded or clear, instantly familiar even if remote, or entirely alien?

What edge is your signal representing? It might be: a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing.

This is deliberately broad, even vague, to offer you as much room as possible for interpretation. The choice is yours. The key things are:

  1. Offer a short creative piece (maybe 100 – 300 words, or one to five images, or up to three minutes of audio or video).
  2. Ideally, provide a short context or commentary piece alongside it.
  3. If you wish, provide some suggested links that people might follow to explore your inspiration for themselves.

This creative challenge is complementary to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and is not specifically object-oriented; make it as conceptual or as concrete as you like. Let your imagination go free range!

I originally conceived this idea (not very originally) as a postcard: ‘send me an image for the front and a paragraph for the back’. I was going to call it ‘Postcards from the Edge’, but this seemed overly constricting. However, for every contribution we publish on ClimateCultures, I will send a unique postcard to the author, with an image and a text that I have selected or created, bringing them together by self-willed accident or design. As yet, I haven’t worked out what these will be or how I will come up with them, so this is my creative challenge too!

To start the series – and to see whether anyone bites – here is my personal contribution. It is not a template (I haven’t even followed my own ‘serving suggestion’ particularly faithfully) and the fact that it picks up in some way from my own contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects is not a signal (however weak or coded) that others should look to that series for an idea or a model.


Pale.Blue

Pale Blue Dot Syndrome (colloquial, 'Blue'; archaic, 'Sagan's Pixel'): a malaise of Gaian-class consciousness, in legend derived from the ProtoGaian Terra before its first outwave. Though Terra's existence is now doubted by most, the term's origin is implied in that fabled aquatmosphere's supposed chromatocharacteristics.

According to the legend, 'Blue' malaise arose initially among Terra's self-extincted Homosagans, a biosubstrate component that developed protoawareness, dominance delusions and abortive fledgeflight. Their very first projectiletechnoproxysensorium view back to Terra from their solsystem's margins (attributed to the preconscious emissary Voya, which records show may have actually existed, although it would have long ago subsumed into the AyEyeBrane) fed into mistaken notions of Terra's solitary life-bearing status. Fabulists speculate that Homosagans sensed that this one dimensional image – their 'dot' – contained all that their species had ever known, done or been; achievements, failings, experiences and emotional states which they soon after recited into the Blue List Library (also now lost except to legend).

'Blue' then infected the Terran being itself when consciousness bootstrapped from its lively but transient biosubstrates up to the Gaian level and into the All Time, once the Homosagans had ceased and been reabsorbed. As such, myth accords with our understanding of 'Blue' as a persistent memeviroid that all Gaians carry from our zooriginal levels, and which is still capable of inducing disequilibrium regarding our truth claims for the Galactaian One

Into Whose Consciousness We Raise Ourselves.

Context

On 5th September 1977 (when I was 12 years old, the human population was just over 4 billion and CO2 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere were about 335 ppm), NASA launched its Voyager I probe as part of a mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. That mission was completed in 1989 (24; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm) and both Voyagers I and II later travelled on into the outer reaches of the solar system. On 25th August 2012 (47; over 7 billion; about 395 ppm), Voyager I flew beyond the heliopause, the outer extent of the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind. At this point, it became humanity’s first physical artefact to reach interstellar space (radio and TV broadcasts first reached into this zone some 60 years earlier: humanity’s first emissaries to other suns…).

Voyager I is currently moving away from us at a speed of over 3.5 AUs per year (one rather anthropocentrically named Astronomical Unit being the average distance from Earth to the Sun: about 93 million miles, which sunlight covers in about 8 minutes); at that rate, it would take the probe about 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest solar neighbour at 267,000 AUs away (although it isn’t even headed in that direction). Our TV broadcasts, travelling outwards at the speed of light, clock up 63,000 AUs per year, and reach Proxima Centauri in just over four years. On these scales, Voyager is very slow and still very very close to home.

Meanwhile, on 14th February 1990 (25; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm), astrophysicist Carl Sagan revealed an image that Voyager I’s camera had recorded when NASA colleagues – at his request – turned the probe to point back to the Sun. Almost hidden in the frame, obscured by sunlight flaring off the spacecraft itself, was an image of Earth that had never been seen before, from a vantage point that had never previously been possible: 40 AUs out, or over 3.7 billion miles, our world as the now famous Pale Blue Dot.

Pale Blue Dot – “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam” Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech © 2017

Voyager’s camera was still close to home in cosmic terms, and moving at the pace of an Arcturan MegaSnail (had Douglas Adams ever invented one); but these were distances and velocities as far beyond human experience as we are ever likely to see from again in my lifetime (90 if I’m lucky? 9 billion? 600 ppm at the current rate of stupidity?) And it came just 18 years after another famous image of Earth  — this time as a blue marble — when, in December 1972 (8; 3.9 billion, about 330 ppm), the Apollo 17 astronauts captured the whole Earth on their approach to the Moon. One of the most viewed — and transmitted — images of our planet will have reached our nearest neighbour at around the time Voyager I was launched.

The Earth as seen from Apollo 17, 1972
Image taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans, astronauts  Photo: Public domain, NASA

 

Apollo 17 was the final mission to the Moon in the 20th century. Those last humans walking on an alien world – the most remote that any such beings have ever been from other members of their own species (or from any other we know of, other than the ones in their own guts) – were less than 0.003 AUs from home. So far, barring any microbes catching a ride on our space probes, no other terrestrial lifeform has made it further (except for in those TV adverts, of course).

As mentioned in my piece for A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, as well as their cameras and other instruments, the Voyager craft also took recordings of human and other Earthly voices and sounds. Incredibly, some of the instruments are still gathering data and sending them back home for NASA to detect, unpick and translate: ever-weakening signals from way beyond. But the camera that recorded us all as a pale blue dot will never see us again.

Someone might be looking down a long lens from a distant future, however. A future when they — alien intelligences, perhaps on the scale of whole worlds — might also have found solace in myths, arts and sciences of their own, and are maybe broadcasting them on faster-than-light entertainment shows and a Star Wide Web that spills out far beyond their star clusters, backwards in time and space towards us. What new technology will enable us to receive and read their dark spectrum?

***

Back on Earth, Carl Sagan spoke to his press conference audience as he presented the image for the first time. You can watch him on a 1990 TV broadcast that would have overtaken Voyager I about six hours later. He later developed his theme in his book, Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: a vision of the human future in space, 1994

 

The Gift of the Goddess Tree

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

Following What the Bee Sees we have the second of two stories from Jennifer Leach, as told in the back room of a Reading pub as part of 2017's Festival of the Dark and its micro-festival Dazzle. Jennifer led the vision and creation of the year-long Festival of the Dark,  helping us navigate the Celtic cycle of the year and explore the energies of the dark in its many forms. What if the world were other? Stretching imagination and shifting vision is a key to ‘waking up us all’ and forms the bedrock of Jennifer’s own work.
Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life -from the 1847 English translation of the Prose Edda, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge
Image: Public domain
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

 

Last Thursday I went to visit my great 84-year old friend Anne Yarwood. For those of you who know RISC — the Reading International Solidarity Centre — she was the visionary who conceived it and brought it into being. After a cup of tea, we walked slowly out into her beautiful garden and sat in a small roofless shelter she calls The Lighthouse. We sat in amiable silence. And she then pointed to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and said, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I smiled and nodded and we sat there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity there, under the Earth.

As we sat so, I began to undergo a strange transformation. It is hard to put into words exactly what happened. A transmogrification, a molten transformation, a morphing of being and consciousness. In some manner not understood, I was within the tree, with a discombobulating sense of slightness. Glancing over, I could see that it was so too for Anne. What we had become I do not know. Witchety grubs, tree fleas, I am still unsure. And this is what then happened. In the subtlest way possible, both our surroundings and ourselves began to change. In some way, we were carried down within the heartwood of the tree, moving from the Upperland into the Netherworld beneath the soil. It was a gradual process, with the light around us dimming first into gloaming, and then into darkness; the quality of the darkness intensifying until it began to emerge as an alternative way of seeing. Our power of vision slipped incrementally from the organ of the eyes to that of the nose; we began to perceive through smell. As we descended, the darkness crystallized into the pungent scent of loam. Dim pictures formed in our nasal passages. Pictures of roots binding one with the other, spreading infinitely as a vast heaven; fungus-studded caverns hollowing with the peaty brooks that licked the leaf-moulded netherworld. Shadowy movements of fellow creatures and organisms waving, shaking, scuttling, padding. An interchange of whistling, calling, creaking, clicking; the groaning of taproots scraping anchor in the depths, the low whistle of insect calling water, the trickling flick of water calling beetle. The bark of a badger, the drumbeating rhythm of a mole at work. As we tunnelled further and further more damply downwards, the scraping against soil shaft of our own bodies crackled and cracked, breaking back and across our vibratory receptors.

Time was measured in the crawling pace of our carapaces, days by vivid vibrations, nights by a gentle hum. All we were, Anne and I, were sensations. No thought. No memory. No perception. No projection. No wondering what existed beyond our very own skins. No wondering what existed within our very own skins. No wondering what might exist beyond the rhizome roof that marked the boundary of our world. No wondering even what might be the boundary of our world. We simply were. Anne and I. Some sort of witchety grubs in a darkness dappled world of root and leafmould sensation.

How the experience ended, again neither of us can be sure. We were sitting, in amiable silence, in the small roofless shelter Anne calls the Lighthouse. And she was pointing to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and was saying, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I was smiling and nodding and we were sitting there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity, under the Earth.

Yet the sun was lower, the air cooler, with a hint of rain. We made our way slowly back towards the house. In companionable silence.

 


Find out more

You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.

Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.

You can visit the Reading International Solidarity Centre and its  excellent Global Cafe at 35-39 London St, Reading RG1 4PS

Stalking the Impossible

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

It's been two month's since Nick Hunt's excellent addition to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. I sent him the customary secondhand book that these contributions attract. So my review of that particular book, Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, is way overdue. It's a novel I discovered over a decade ago and have read or listened to many times since. It seems to attract this rereading, so I was obviously very happy to discover a copy in an Oxfam bookshop and have this excuse to enjoy it yet again, to share it and to set down some of my thoughts on such a classic.

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, published in 1939 as Europe descended into war, is a peerless thriller and a brilliant piece of landscape writing. It’s also an exploration of a wounded human forced to resurface long-buried self-knowledge, and a novel of more-than-human relationships.

The plot is taut. A wealthy English landowner and big game hunter, who never reveals his name because his fame threatens reprisals on his friends if his private account – his ‘confession’ – is ever discovered, is hunting in Europe when he slips into an unnamed country and stalks its dictator to his closely guarded country retreat. Like the hunter, the nation and tyrant are never identified. Setting out to test whether his stalking skills are up to this ultimate prey, our narrator is a hair trigger’s breadth from succeeding when over-confidence and a slight change in breeze result in his capture, interrogation, torture and attempted murder by the dictator’s henchmen. From that moment on, he’s in flight for his life, moving painfully, cautiously across a continent that’s closing down on freedom, back to London and then a secret hideout in the Dorset countryside. His hideout is, like much about his past, a secret he keeps even from himself until he is almost at the threshold. Although he is in a state of denial about his actions and motives, as the title suggests, he’s a “solitary beast, exasperated by chronic pain or widowerhood … separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.”

Rogue Male cover, first edition (1939)
Artist: unidentified

‘That safe pit of darkness’

As he digs deeper into his memories – literally deeper, as he lies in the burrow he’s made for himself in the high banks of a long-forgotten lane that’s cut deep and overgrown between two mutually suspicious farms, and waits to see if his equally cunning and ferocious pursuer has discovered him – his journalling uncovers just how much he’s been deceiving himself. He experiences

“the blankness which descends upon me when I dare not know what I am thinking. I know that I was consumed by anger. I remember the venomous thoughts, yet at the time I was utterly unaware of them. I suppressed them as fast as they came up into my conscious mind. I would have nothing to do with them, nothing to do with grief or hatred or revenge … I had not admitted what I meant to kill.”

He represents himself in his pencil-and-exercise-book confession as a blameless, adventuring sportsman. But he recognises that his hope is to understand his own actions, whose “reasons were insistent but frequently obscure”; to “get some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.” This doubling, and the regarding of a reflected self it enables, is anticipated in the moment he first sees his broken face.

“I didn’t recognise myself. It was not the smashed eye which surprised me – that was merely closed, swollen and ugly. It was the other eye. Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt.”

He spends much of his account not recognising himself. And yet, if his relationship with his inner life seems as evasive as his cross-country false trails right up until the final confrontation with his pursuer and the “second enemy dogging my movements – my own unjust and impossible conscience”, his relationship with society at large seems self-assured, if cynical. He scorns the ideologies of ‘the masses’ or ‘the State’ that are taking hold abroad, of course, but also an anti-individualist conformism closer to home.

While he doesn’t escape the male, privileged attitudes of his time, class or country, he’s no misanthrope or xenophobe. He has a keen eye for the character of individuals he meets, a respect for their lives, and a dry and understated humour at his own expense. Nor is he a classic British imperialist in the style of other ‘rugged loners’ from pre-war thrillers. But his view of people and society is heavily skewed to his own – very male and individualistic – philosophy of nature.

As for his relationship with the animal kingdom, this is for the most part that of the hunter; his trek on the continent “quite a conventional course: to go out and kill something in rough country in order to forget my troubles.” But his relationship with the physicality of his environment – not just his native countryside, but wherever he exists, as hunter or hunted – is something far more elemental.

Barely conscious after his capture and questioning, his captors take him to a remote precipice, leaving him hanging by smashed fingertips so his ‘accidental’ death can be ‘accidentally’ detected. Further torn and mangled by the long fall down the cliffside, he’s saved only by falling into a marsh. As he comes back to life – it is a form of resurrection – he’s unable to differentiate body from bog.

“I had parted, obviously and irrevocably, with a lot of my living matter … it was revolting to imagine myself still alive and of the consistency of mud. There was a pulped substance all around me, in the midst of which I carried on my absurd consciousness. I had supposed that this bog was me; it tasted of blood.”

New skins, old connections

That same muddy mess, caked to him as a second skin, binds his wounds: its substance melding with his to keep insides in, outside out even while he cannot completely separate the two in his own mind.

There is nothing cozy about this self-identification with intimate surroundings. Rather than romantic notions of the hunter as organic extension and master of his terrain, it’s a more primal experience; the wounded prey at once part of and apart from an elements that can both kill and protect. Later, lay a false trail, invisible to the eyes of a police and populace who have been cleverly roused by his pursuer, the only cover is the sodden clay of a cabbage field in plain sight of the road he knows his pursuers will use.

“It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where … the half-alive remember hills and sunshine …To lie on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe! If the owner of that vile field had been planting, he’d have stuck his dibber into me before noticing that I wasn’t mud.”

As with earth, water plays a crucial role in his survival. At different points on his slow journey, stream, river, sea – even absent water in the case of a ship’s disused water tank – conceal him, offer the means to clothe himself, or provide his mode of transport through hostile country.

Trees and hedges also assist him. In the first hours after near-death, he struggles to raise himself high into a larch, single-mindedly abusing his tortured hands so as to leave the bark free of tell-tale mud from his boots, and waits out the day. While he recovers, a search party looks for his body below. “When I became conscious, the tree was swaying in the light wind and smelling of peace … I felt as if I were a parasite on the tree, grown to it.” Unable to make sense of what is around him, he can “only receive impressions. I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature.”

Later, cornered in his burrow by the hunter who offers sweetened lies about the freedom he will find again if he signs a confession of his assassination attempt, he tries to tunnel his way out of the death-trap he’s made for himself. The air supply restricted, his digging is constantly interrupted by imminent suffocation from his own spent breath and the foul air of his faeces, which he’s been forced to live with in the dank, claustrophobic cell. “Then I would begin to dream of the root or the stone or the water that was beating me, and I would get up again and go to work, half naked and foul with the red earth, a creature inhuman in mind and body.”

Until this point, he has shared his den with an older inhabitant of the decrepit holloway between farms: another cunning and ferocious beast, a feral black cat. This creature proves to be a great ally.

“I was so prepared to frighten any dogs which investigated me that they would never come back, but it appeared that something had already scared them for me; dogs gave the lane a wide berth. The cause was Asmodeus. I observed him first as two ears and two eyes apparently attached to a black branch. When I moved my head, the ears vanished, and when I stood up the rest of him had vanished. I put out some scraps of bully beef behind the branch, and an hour later they too had vanished.”

As the novel plays out, the man’s world has shrunk from his summer’s freedom to roam, a privileged and skilled loner; to a furtive hide-and-seek testing of those skills; then the hoped-for autumnal rural cover, where he can live off his wits until danger has passed; finally to a dank, filthy pit scraped into the cold red earth beneath a thorn hedge: an isolated and hollowed out existence in a holloway known only to his enemy and to no human friend. The cat seems a last link between him and something like a liveable world that a rogue male might choose rather than be forced to endure.

Rogue Male cover, limited edition hardback reissue
Artist: Stanley Donwood © 2013
archive.slowlydownward.com

The two beasts, wary at first, gradually become respectful and then sympathetic with each other.

“Asmodeus, as always, is my comfort. It is seldom that one can give to and receive from an animal close, silent, and continuous attention. We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice. During the hours while he sits cleaning himself, and I motionless in my dirt, there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us. I cannot ‘order’ or even ‘hope’ that he should perform a given act, but back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action. I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”

How this confinement ends for the three hunters – would-be assassin, feral cat, fascist agent – is not something to let out of the bag here. 

Under cover

Rogue Male is a novel of slowly revealed relationships. Between individual and society. Human and more-than-human habitats and cohabitants. Surface and subterranean. Cunning and culture. The self and itself. Memory recovered and memory constructed. Between the man and the loss which turned him rogue and in pursuit of a vengeance he cannot admit to himself.

The Dorset holloway is not his first hiding place. From the leafy cover where he trains his rifle on Europe’s notorious mass murderer – just “for the fun of the stalk”, he insists – to the muddy bog where he lays his first misleading tracks, the tree where he hauls his broken body, the lakeside foliage from which he dashes to steal bathers’ clothes, his stowaway on a cross-channel ship, the black tunnels of the London Underground or the night cover of Wimbledon Common, to cabbage field and secret burrow, he excels at using his environment to cover, recover, survive. But finally, even with all his skills and instincts – and occasional flashes of imagined ‘simple thought-transference’ between his unstable mind and the unknowable one of Asmodeus – he cannot extend his physical senses out into the light spaces beyond his underground cell. Neither can he hide forever in the dark internal spaces of denial he’s carved out: mental sanctuary from a buried anguish the dictator’s regime brought down on him. He must burst out, into a future and a fate he cannot judge ahead of their reality.

Rogue Male illustration, Folio Society edition
Image: David Rooney © 2013
davidrooney.com

“Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts. I remind myself that I have extended and presumably will extend again in the time of the outer world. At present I exist only in my own time, as one does in a nightmare, forcing myself to a fanaticism of endurance … I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object.”

 

Find out more

Rogue Male has been written about many times over the decades since its 1939 publication, and more than once by no less a figure than Robert Macfarlane. The fact that it’s has been a little intimidating to follow that skilled literary tracker’s footsteps is part of the reason for taking so long to even start on this review. Another is that I kept wanting to reread and relisten to the book itself; so I did, and always found something new. You can read his review of Rogue Male and of his attempts to locate the famous sunken hideout of Household’s hero; and if you have the 2014 Orion edition of the novel, you can read the extended version which forms Macfarlane’s introduction.

A limited edition hardback issue was produced alongside the Orion edition in 2014, with cover art by Stanley Dornwood as shown above.

Dornwood also collaborated with Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards on a 2012 book, Holloway. A masterpiece, this slim book of words and images is another, fuller telling of the quest for the Dorset hideout and a meditation on the nature and history of England’s sunken lanes and tracks. I’ve not made much here of the landscape of ancient tracks and sunken lanes that criss-cross Household’s novel, although it is central to the novel’s character, because it is so well (un)covered in Macfarlane’s own words. Holloway book deserves its own review here; but in lieu of that, there’s an excellent Guardian photoessay on holloways, by none other than Robert Macfarlane himself.

And for another analysis of where this semi-fictional sunken lane might be located in fact, with a map, see Chris Newall’s The Rogue Male’s Hideout?

Rogue Male also exists in an Audible audiobook format; and another excellent reading, by Michael Jayston is regularly rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. It’s worth keeping your good eye open for the next airing; this was my first encounter with the story, and I still think it’s the best way to experience it. Maybe through earphones, lying in the dark under stars between the hedges (or if you’re feeling particularly authentic, dug in beneath the roots and earth) of a secret holloway in south west England. Take a cat.

The book was adapted for film in the 1940s and 70s: Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) starring Walter Pidgeon, and Clive Donner’s Rogue Male (1976) with Peter O’Toole. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with either unless you’d a completist. Apparently, there’s a third adaptation on the cards, with Benedict Cumberbatch…

Rather than watch adaptations that are doomed to fail the original, you could explore another, more recent classic of a very different kind. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is his account of what he knew was an always doomed-to-fail attempt to experience land, water and air as a non-human animal. “What’s an animal? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. What’s a human? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals.” You can read my mini-review of Being a Beast, which I contributed to the Happy Museum Project.