A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

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


1,900 words — approximate reading time 7.5 minutes


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

***

The electric Iolanthe

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

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

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

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

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

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

The colour of money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new coral reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


Find out more

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

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

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith
A writer and campaigner engaging publishers in the Climate Crisis, to act now for decisive moves to repurpose publishing for the new age of climate adaptation
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #10

Citizen artist Yky offers three objects that explore Anthropocene themes of our relationship with time and the world and the responsibility that we hold in our own hands, using a common photographic presentation to help make these visible.


600 words: estimated reading time 2.5 minutes


The Anthropocene is an amazing concept. On one hand, experts are still trying to find evidence of human activity through geological deposits proving that we have left the Holocene period that started about 12,000 years ago. On the other hand, more and more citizens acknowledge the principle of a drastic change impacting our daily lives due to our unsustainable way of life. On one hand, the compelling need of a proof that is never satisfied with the idea of the best possible assumption. On the other, a critical awareness of our environment. Proof opposed to perception. Objectivity opposed to subjectivity. And in-between, a crying child begging adults to listen to science.

Time in our hands

Three pictures, linking past present and future. All of them in my hands. All of them in our hands. A link creating the continuity between humans and nonhumans that could possibly be visible. Will our awareness go further than simply realizing the mistakes we have made?

Showing 'The Past in Our Hands' - the Venus de Laussel, by Yky
Venus.
Image © Yky 2020

In the beginning was Art. Like a Venus 25,000 years old, with its own symbolic and sacred function talking to ancients and echoing shamanic rituals. Mankind and nature as one unique entity.

The present in our hands - coal. Image by Yky.
Charbon
Image: Yky © 2020

Today is Coal. Still the most important and polluting source of energy worldwide. Its usage took off in Britain during the sixteenth century, as extracting wood fuel for growing cities became harder and costlier. Switching from a renewable energy to a fossil source…

The future in our hands - Time. Image by Yky.
Cadran
Image: Yky © 2020

Tomorrow is a question of Time. For a geologist, time is meaningful over millions of years. For the crying child, tomorrow seems already too late. ‘Time is relative,’ Einstein would have said. But not any longer. The notion of time refers now to our own responsibility. If Mother Earth could be seen as just 24 hours old, mankind only appeared during the last 5 seconds. It is time to realize the true meaning of the Anthropocene.


Find out more 

The Venus pictured here is the Venus de Laussel, a 46cm limestone bas-relief of a nude woman that is approximately 25,000 years old and associated with the Gravettian Upper Paleolithic culture. It was discovered in 1911 in the Dordogne, southwestern France, where it had been carved into the limestone of a rock shelter. It is currently displayed in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.

Coal — a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock — formed when dead plant matter decayed into peat and was then converted by the heat and pressure of deep burial over millions of years during the late Carboniferous and early Permian times (about 300 – 360 million years ago). Although used throughout history in places with easily accessible sources, it was the development of pit mining and then the Industrial Revolution in Britain that “led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel. In 1700, five-sixths of the world’s coal was mined in Britain. Britain would have run out of suitable sites for watermills by the 1830s if coal had not been available as a source of energy.”

You can explore the story of the formation of the Earth and its life as visualised in a single day in this Quizlet collection of flashcards (with a summary underneath). And the Deep Time Walk app and cards explore the full story in fascinating detail; with these cards, each one covers 100 million years, and humans arrive only with card 47… You can read ClimateCultures reviews of the cards and the app.

And, of course, do explore the many more contributions to our unique series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects — from poets, non-fiction writers, gallery curators, visual artists, creative producers …

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Rising Appalachia

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe SmithWriter Mary Woodbury finds deep resonance in the music of Rising Appalachia, who draw on the rural landscapes of her family, and whose musical fusion offers ideas of resilience and community in the face of change and loss.


2,235 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 18 minutes video  


Mary’s post is contribution to our Gifts of Sound and Vision series: where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.

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

***

Mom was born in a log cabin in Francis Holler in Brinkley, Kentucky, a small, sleepy town in the Appalachian hills. Her dad and mother never had an education past the 4th grade nor ever learned how to drive a car. They lived off the land and probably rued that Pappaw had to work in the coal mines to earn money (he later had a carpentry business) or that the little crick in their front yard was really just a sewer pit.

My memories growing up consisted of hanging with family and climbing the mountains around my grandparents’ holler and picking wildflowers in sunlit meadows.

We went back there a few years ago to remember it all. Mountains nearby had been strip-mined. The cliffs rising up on one side of the dirt holler were gone. Their little summer waterfalls and winter icicles were gone. The log cabin where my mom was born was gone. The old lady’s house at the end of the holler — where we used to pick black walnuts — was gone. Seemed like even the mountain was gone or at least started further back than it had due to road expansion. My mammaw and pappaw and dad and an aunt and uncle are gone too. But Pappaw’s old house was still there. Time is a cruel enemy when you experience loss like that, not just of people you love but of the wild you lose along the way. And, if you live long enough, these losses start accumulating to the point it’s like phantom limbs and the ache lives long in the heart.

Deep roots

480 million years ago — when the Appalachian Mountains formed during the Ordovician era, Laurentia’s landmass put the Scottish Highland and Appalachian Mountains in the same mountain range, which explains their physical similarities. Who could have foretold that the Scot-Irish folks would migrate across the Atlantic as well? We went to Ireland with my mother a few years ago, and she still talks about how it uncannily feels like home.

The Appalachian mountains extend from southeastern Canada down to central Alabama. But there’s also the cultural region of Appalachia that is generally considered to include folks living in the hills and valleys between Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. This area of memory, of loss, is one that has become more bittersweet the further away I have travelled. Where I felt real and felt the animal in me as I spent long days with my cousins and siblings climbing those hills, where also my mother had planted pine trees as a child. I remember the soft summer nights and hearing whip-poor-wills while sitting outside on the old porch where my Pappaw whittled and told stories. I remember Mammaw snapping beans in the yard and her great shucky beans and fried green tomatoes and applesauce cake and cornbread. What I remember, really the most, was the love.

The Appalachian area was sometimes frightening to me. Dotting the backroads were otherworldly shacks that were so broken down you wouldn’t think anyone lived there, until you saw an ancient toothless couple or a clothesline out on the front porch. Late at night trucks would roll down Highway 160, in front of that old sewer creek, and would echo throughout the bends along the road.

We’d go up to hike near an abandoned coal mine where a house had burned down and now stood black and structureless, and there were poor shacks up there too. The land that had cradled my memory from as long as I could remember was also a forest of poverty, mist, and ghosts. Every time we visited, it seemed like we went backwards in time, similar to the way Joseph Conrad described the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. The area resembled nothing of where we came from, though it did resemble everything that was wrong with America and its unhealthy coal mining industry among a poverty-stricken, hungry community.

In the 19th century, coal overtook wood for energy in the United States. From the 1960s onward, mountaintop coal removal became more popular than underground mining due to the fact that a worker could get more than twice as much coal. Coal mining has been ruinous for rivers, air, soil, biodiversity, and, of course, human health — with black lung disease and cancer. Fly ash slurry and chemical spills from coal production have destroyed waterways and even been found in drinking water. Fracking to extract natural gas found in shale is also dangerous in that it results in poisonous wastewater that can end up in groundwater; this water is hard to break down, even by wastewater treatment plants. Deforestation and wetland removal in order to produce coal are no small issues either. Though the fossil fuel industry has been known for the jobs it provides, mechanization and energy transition have greatly reduced the number of these jobs in the past few decades.

Rising Appalachia: story and song

My bittersweet memories of the eastern Kentucky hills and urge to experience those times again has been helped along by story and song from the region, particularly from the band Rising Appalachia, whose music takes me back. Founded by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith (Leah sometimes goes by the last name Song), the band’s southern roots are punctuated with activism and care for the natural world.

Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
Rising Appalachia: Leah and Chloe Smith
risingappalachia.com

Musical Traditions, the online magazine for traditional music throughout the world, explains Appalachian music as deriving from two types:

Today when ethnomusicologists discuss ‘Appalachian music’ they generally divide the term into two periods: the traditional music — including ballads and dance tunes, mostly brought over with Anglo-Celtic immigrants, and in evidence from the early eighteenth century through 1900 — and the ‘old-time’ music popular from around 1900 through 1930, a blend of that tradition with parlour and vaudeville music, African-American styles, and Minstrel Show tunes… One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group… Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a ‘slave instrument’ until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or ‘bom-diddle-diddy’ produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.

Rising Appalachia integrates all these styles in their music, and has an upcoming album, Leylines, coming in May, which will include Ani DiFranco, Trevor Hall, and Maurice Tuner. According to their website:

“Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music — that we’ve been born and raised with — and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

Rise up

I’m looking forward to Leylines but also have found a home in their music that’s already out as it’s kind of like the umbilical cord to home. I’ve listened to the band for a few years now and have recognized the way that pain can bring art, and that their activism is not lip service nor festishized but comes from a genuine place.

In the video of the song Filthy Dirty South is the statement: “Due to the production and extraction of oil, a great deal of marshes and swamps are lost at an astonishing rate of a football field every 30 minutes.” The video shows a paddle through a southern swamp, along with the sisters playing guitars in the woods. Water reflects sunlight almost ponderously. Plants that are not invasive kudzu (which I saw everywhere in Kentucky when we last visited) peek through the rich forest soil. Feathers and beads adorn guitars and hair. There is something primal about it all, and something sweet about the sisters’ voices dipping into the soft ballad of Appalachia.

Another Rising Appalachia song, SUNU, has an aerialist swinging from a tree, dancers and Moko jumbies wearing ancient African masks, and it combines African and Appalachian music. ‘Sunu’ means ‘Dance Beautiful Women Dance’ in Guinea. It’s clearly a celebration of life and nature, but also seems to represent, at least to me, a theatrical coming together of multiple cultures, a positive sign about how we must dignify where people came from.

In Occupy, the band recognizes resistance. It’s reminiscent of old blues with that pain of the world coming through but with no more weeping and a’wailing because “we’ll be done with the troubles of the world.” Similarly, in Resilient, one of my favorite songs, is a call for action and not drowning in helplessness. Echoing the reality of pipelines through backyards and “prayers to the waters” and “women to the center”, it calls for hanging on, not just to where we are now but to our roots. The video is a beautiful one of dancers expressing this idea of uplift.

I cannot begin to cover every vision and sound from these artists, and they are all as worthy as the ones mentioned here. I can only recommend digging a new rabbit hole for yourself. You will find modern fusion as well as reimagined older folk songs like I’ll Fly Away and Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Another Rising Appalachia song, Harmonize, further ties together past and present, as the band actually travelled to the Salish Sea, near my current home in British Columbia, to film the video and meet old friends and family there. The video is a story of rites of passage for a teenager and includes old crafts like sailing, blacksmithing, seed-saving, fishing, and even love and courtship. 

Listening to this music has become the thread connecting past and present for me, in more ways than one. Their videos bring back the sweet summer days I recall as a child in the sunlit forested mountains and lakes, with bugs and seeds and petals flying by in some frenetic motion that says “this is life, and it is good.” Their music may be born of pain in this world, but it takes us to a higher place where we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against hate, division, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. It’s a music of place and time, of what was once and still is, but the songs also transcend time. It’s about hanging onto the deepest of our good roots, no matter that mountains, summer waterfalls, marshes, forests, or people we love have gone.

Since those old days of Kentucky, although I have moved to the west coast of Canada, protesting pipelines in my own woods — and finding new mountains to climb and old stories to tell among friends during backyard southern parties, complete with shucky beans and bourbon — I still slip back into my southern accent. Rise above. Carry it forward. Uplift. 


Find out more

Mary Woodbury — whose forthcoming novel, Up the River (under pen name Clara Hume), is about a pipeline spill in Appalachia — has previously contributed two posts for us on A History of Eco-fiction

Up the River, by Clara Hume
Up the River, by Clara Hume
Cover design: Clare Hume © 2019 (art © Can Stock Photo / prometeus www.canstockphoto.co.uk)

Rising Appalachia was founded by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the band established an international fan base due to relentless touring, tireless activism, and no small degree of stubborn independence: find out more at risingappalachia.com.

Musical Traditions, the magazine for traditional music throughout the world, is an online resource, and includes A Short History of Appalachian Music, which Mary quotes from in her post.

Though this article centres around one band’s contribution to Appalachian music, Mary has provided some further reference for both story and song:

Mary Woodbury
Mary Woodbury
A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.
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The Mirrored Ones

Anthropocene objectsClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. This book’s objects offer a mirror test for our ‘Age of Human’ — and conceptual links to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.


2,890 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


Objects have a power over the human mind. They live in the world we live in, yet open into others — worlds of imagination and of experience. And maybe this power increases with apparent distance, even while the objects remain close to hand: distant pasts and places, distant cultures, distant natures. Maybe even distant futures, ones we now must reimagine as radical departures from our own experience.

Objects have a place in the growing ClimateCultures archive, of course: our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects has already reached 27, offering its own imaginative range of surprising totems of human presence on the planet, a planet being reprocessed. And some of my strongest memories from TippingPoint events remain those small group discussions where we each brought objects and shared accounts of their personal significance within rapidly changing natural and social contexts. It always seems special to add our story of material encounters to the accumulation of all those other ‘small stories’ that make up and question larger narratives. Objects have voices too.

This impressive book allows many objects to speak to our imaginations of pasts, presents and futures in what we are beginning to recognise — haltingly, imperfectly and with much debate over the terms and even the name of this invention-discovery — as the Anthropocene. The Age of Human. Or the age of some humans at least: those busy undermining planetary stability, resilience and value; more hopefully, the coming age of other humans, those now excluded and undermined in this Age of Precarity but whose voices also ‘we’ must hear, learn from, change with. There’s no clear, honest way of removing the quote mark around ‘us’ in this age, of refusing to acknowledge the provisional status of our knowledge of who we are. As the editors remind us, “Objects, too, can disrupt a sense of human exceptionalism,” and it is far from simply a ‘human’ age.

Future Remains cover. Objects to think with.
Future Remains. Objects to think with.
Photographs: Tim Flach / Design: Isaac Tobin
www.press.uchicago.edu

Objects to think with

Future Remains emerged from a “playful, performative space” — a ‘slam’ of artists and scientists to explore a Cabinet of Curiosities for this new age — and became an exhibition, a workshop and then a book. In all its guises and stages, it remains a provocation. What sort of new age is this; who and what produced and reproduces it; what is the nature of this world; what are its physical signs, wrapped up in nature-culture and available for us to think with, work on, act through?

In their preface, Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett warn us that objects demand caution as well as curiosity. While curiosity draws us outside ourselves — “can shake up our place in the world” — objects can also blind us to wider horizons, making either their exotic or their familiar worlds more absolute:

“Objects, then, can just as easily outshine as open up other worlds. The challenge is to ask not only what objects reveal but also what they hide. We need to take notice of less familiar things [to] entertain the possibility of other beings, other relations in the world, and other cosmologies not easily subsumed within the dominant tropes of Western science animated by one version of the Anthropocene.”

While it’s the fable-of-civilisational-progress version of the Anthropocene that the editors explicitly warn us to examine and hold up against other lights, it’s a useful caution against any singular, definitive story that the many contending Anthropocene labels seek to make the ‘official’ narrative. Curiosity, then, should remain our dominant mode of exploration, powered by humility in our lack of complete knowledge, just as in our lack of complete control.

Here, I’ve selected eight of the book’s entries.

Anthropocene in a Jar

Objects - Anthropocene in a jar
Anthropocene in a jar
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

On a family trip to the beach, Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller dug into the sand and attempted to answer their children’s question: “What causes the stripes?” They began to build an answer between them — a tale of “abstract earth processes … the moon’s tug on the sea, the wave’s tug on the sand and the shells” — trying to make it palpable to a child’s mind and their own as they continued digging.

Later, collecting samples in a jar,

“we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunnelling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains — things one could classify as ‘natural’. And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with toes in the sand — things one could classify as ‘human.’ … Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”

The Age of Man

Plowshare
Plowshare
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

Through Plowshare, a 1970s Atomic Energy Commission film, Joseph Masco unpicks the grand narrative of the Great Acceleration: the exponential age of plenty we began to rapidly carve out after the Second World War. Powered by Enlightenment dreams of human mastery of nature, the perfectibility of human nature, Plowshare illustrates how the splitting of the atom seemed to “supercharge this imaginary … singling the imminent arrival of a superabundance, promising continuing breakthroughs in health, energy, and consumer economy.” This dream

“… if it did not end in the fiery flash of nuclear war, would push relentlessly and inevitably toward a perfected capitalist society. This was the first ‘age of man’ — a nuclear-powered fantasy that miraculously transformed an unprecedented destructive force into the expectation of a world without limits … Pause, just for a moment, to consider the intoxicating rush of this enterprise, the creative energy of making things that work on this kind of scale, of believing that people could finally shape reality rather than merely submit to it.”

Plowshare recasts the military legacy of nuclear explosions, making them weapons not against other humans but against the real enemy: nature. ‘Man’ reshaping “the land in dimensions never before possible … as he struggles against the geography nature has pitted against him.” Want to tear more wealth from deep time and deep rock? To blast new canals between oceans? Nuclear bangs are the way to go. When it comes to nature, war is peace.

Marine Animal Satellite Tags

Objects - Marine animal satellite tags
Marine animal satellite tags
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

Nils Hanwahr offers our gaze a much more benign technology — one that’s ubiquitous in our TV wildlife shows, refashioning our understanding of what and where ‘wildlife’ is, how it’s faring across the planet. Satellite tags are invaluable for the data they provide on animals in seas, land and air, logging continuous intelligence on their position, behaviour and environment. Bringing us closer to nature, though a nature wholly mediated through that technology, and living in the imagination rather than experience. And what of the tagged animals?

“Tagging a marine animal with a high-tech device endows the creature with a kind of agency that could only arise in the Anthropocene … Agency only registers on our human scale by leaving a trace and in the twenty-first century that means registering life forms and environments as digital data. We incorporate remote environments into our digital representations of nature … One  might wonder if turning an animal into a data point does not itself entail an act of violent reduction into a digital infrastructure.”

Cryogenic Freezer Box

Objects - Cryogenic freezer box
Cryogenic freezer box
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

While some living beings are reduced to datapoints in digital infrastructures, other once-living beings become frozen species in DNA banks. Elizabeth Hennessy inspects our drive to preserve the world’s biodiversity in the face of our sixth mass-extinction event. “A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life.” It’s a ‘natural’ progression, as the “urge to collect has been integral to the production of Western knowledge of the natural world since the sixteenth century when Europeans brought home curiosities during an age of imperial exploration.” But this isn’t just about protecting knowledge (whose? for whom?); it’s also about a supposed insurance policy for the planet. 

“Environmentalists position human agency as having a dual role in the Anthropocene — both culprit of environmental destruction and potential saviour of lost life. Cryogenic freezer boxes encapsulate both regret for biodiversity loss and faith in science and technology to deliver life from the shambles of massive environmental crisis.”

Hennessy is not the only Future Remains contributor to invoke, with irony, the words of arch techno-optimist Stewart Brand, that “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” But, she asks:

“Who gets to ‘play god’? Faced with climate change, rising oceans, and other Anthropocene crises, how do these ‘gods’ choose who, or what, should be saved? And if scientists in elite laboratories were able to revive extinct species, where in the world would these animals belong once they left the safe haven of the archive?”

The Monkey Wrench 

Objects - Monkey wrench
Monkey wrench
Photographer: Tim Flach timflach.com

Daegan Miller’s contribution is an emblem of mass labour in the hands of the individual Anthropocene worker. In his hands, the humble monkey wrench becomes a tool to “get a grip on the world.”

“Once used everywhere lithe human muscle struggled against iron intransigence, the monkey wrench had a hand in building the entire towering, now tottering mechanical skeleton of the industrialised, modern world. [It] now allows us … to consider inequality — whose labour built the Anthropocene? Whose labour laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shovelled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? … And held once again in a warm human hand, the wrench confronts us: who profited from its work, and who has paid the costs?”

The Germantown Calico Quilt

Germantown calico quilt
Germantown calico quilt
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

Bethany Wiggins chooses a commemorative item from 1820s Pennsylvania: a cotton quilt stitched to record both the image of a French hero of America’s revolution against the British, and the treaty with the Native Americans that founded Philadelphia. If revolutionary wars are sudden (if long-developing) acts of violence, the longer processes of migration, colonialism and control of nature and culture are slow, hidden expressions of the same violent forces.

“Such disasters’ creep can be hard to perceive; their toll spans generations and continents. On a local, human scale, they can be difficult to witness … To make Anthropocene violence legible requires a setting simultaneously local and global, and it urges a historical frame extending at least to 1492. But the temporality of the Anthropocene is not only slow. It is also fast, and its pace is always accelerating … The story of the Anthropocene is thus double both temporally and geographically. Its places are always dislocated, at once local and global; its times are ever out of joint, both fast and slow.”

The quilt’s “layers recall geologic strata” and its panels display “the primal scene of the Anthropocene: fast three-masted sailing ships … hint at the new maritime technologies that moved humans and other animal species, plants, and manufactures across the Atlantic world and across the globe.” But, in recasting Columbus in the guise of the virtuous Quaker John Penn, the quilt erases those technologies that don’t suit its narrative: the guns and the slave economy.

Davies Creek Road painting 

Davies Creek Road
Davies Creek Road
Photographer: Tim Flach timflach.com

Robert Emmett senses that “we need emotionally powerful works of art that reorganise our structures of feeling around these transformations in environment and society.” And part of that need is to counter the momentum of Anthropocene narrative that assume continued, planned and perfected ideologies of human mastery. Emmett selects Trish Carroll and Mandy Martin’s painting, Davies Creek Road, as one counter to a ‘Big Dam Theory of Global Eco-Modernity.’

“The storied landscape in Carroll and Martin’s canvas, layered over with the figure of the goanna lizard in X-ray style, offers texture and meaning where the Australian government sees only a blank slate for a proposed dam. Before the Anthropocene becomes a single perspective, story, or agenda, it can still be used to name a raft of forces that resists a simple ending.”

As with the other objects in this volume, Davies Creek Road can help us to “steer the conversation in different directions [to] make a better environmental future from the predicaments of being just humans…”

The Mirror

Objects - Mirror test
Mirror
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

Sverker Sörlin’s object comes with its own poetic reflection. Drawing on the ‘mirror test’ in psychology — “a check of whether you have an idea of who you are or, perhaps, that you are at all” — Sörlin suggests the Anthropocene as the ultimate, species-level mirror test. As individuals, humans pass the test at around eighteen months, and we know that elephants, apes, magpies and some other animals also recognise themselves as selves.

“Seeing ourselves in the Anthropocene mirror we stand a slightly different test. Not only: do I realise that I am there? But: do I realise that I am part of something larger? Do I figure what this larger something might be?”

The mirror in the exhibition is both physical object — at once the everyday experience of watching yourself and making an exhibit of yourself — and metaphor; the poem and video reflect on “human comedy, showing a few members, a small fragment of the collective Anthropos that the Anthropocene presupposes.” Together, these mirror acts shatter both individualising and globalising narratives of who we are, what we’re engaged in and how this age unfolds. “This is not just one world where a separate humanity impacts on everything nonhuman but a world of increasing entanglements across scales and species and forms of being in the world and thus a world of multiple becomings.”

The mirror is a choice.
Of surface, of now and just now.
Of what is underneath, how we became us, how we became insides, too. How we became divided already in the Pleistocene.

Boundary objects

As Elizabeth Hennessy contemplates with her cryogenic freezer box, “the task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction …

“Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complicated task: recognising the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending the limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”

Daegan Miller reminds us that the Anthropocene may be the end of many things. It should be “the end of a distinctly human past plotted against a static, inert natural world … But perhaps this is a good thing, for the earth, it bears repeating, is not in our hands; only our tools are. And tools are nothing if not the possibilities of a new future made material.” 

Robert Emmett suggests that each of us might construct our own Anthropocene cabinets of curiosities: “perhaps do so in communities as ‘little free libraries,’ where the libraries also contain seeds, specimens, and directions for reanimating forms of extinct life.” Might they also be “an aesthetic survival kit, potent dream of a shareable planetary society that prevented numbness to loss?” 

Sverker Sorlin’s own question, “Who are the mirrored ones?” is central to the Anthropocene: to how we understand and name it, how we recognise the ‘we’ that it names, how each person owns and experiences it, albeit differently and with different expectations of us. Part of the power that objects have is the power to serve as ‘boundary objects’: things which have ‘plasticity’, holding different features and meanings for different people but retaining enough common identity that they can help broker conversations, holding disparate groups together for deliberations of where and how to proceed.

And the curation of objects amplifies this power, modifies it. As Libby Robins says of the collective, “They stack and array, they align and contrast. Each object is a counterpoint to other objects, in conversations and contradistinction. Objects in museums have always carried stories across generations and places, drawing out memories of other times.”

And memories of other futures? We mirrored ones need to look, to talk and act, to reflect that the Anthropocene, the Age of the More-than-Human, is still open for multiple stories. Stories of change. 

“The mirror is a test of hope.”


Find out more  

Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett, is published by the University of Chicago Press (2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work at timflach.com.

You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’s Snarge and Jared Farmer’s Technofossil.

And you can explore all 27 of the objects that ClimateCultures Members have contributed so far to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects in our Curious Minds section. I’ve also posted a list of these to my small blog.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #9

Out of rangePoet Nick Drake offers poems of three dark objects that illuminate our world-shifting ways: an emblem of inefficiency, a single-use convenience that will outlast us, and a nightmare taking shape beneath our feet, our streets, our notice, until…

1,080 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes 


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

Nick’s selection coincides with the publication of his new collection, Out of Range — which itself brilliantly explores the strange interconnections and confronting emergencies of our new planetary age. 

***

Here are three poems from my new poetry collection about objects which speak to me of the Anthropocene.

Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Cover: Bloodaxe Books

Incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient, and have been phased out around the world. Ubiquitous, cheap, reliable, disposable, their illumination gradually conquered the dark, and lit much of the world for more than a century. This poem is a way to say hail and farewell to them…. and to remember the powers of the dark.

Dark - the Livermore Centennial light bulb
The Livermore Centennial Lightbulb (‘the longest lasting lightbulb in the world’)
Image: Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb

You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark –

From a heart-beat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our glass skulls;
to shine at your command.

We shed no tears of wax; reliable,
disposable, we lived where you lived,
lit your parties and wars; one by one
we brightened the hill-shanties
and towers of your mega-cities;
when you were lost, we were home
waiting, just a click away
to save you from the small hours’ fears;
when your lives hung by a thread
we stayed as long as necessary;
we shone when you were gone.

And when with a quiet tick
the luminous spell of our filament broke
you cast us off; and now you wish
a light perpetual and free,
your highways and cities radiant
archipelagoes against the dark –

But if the lights go out from time to time,
lie back on the black grass, gaze up
at the banished constellations, take
ancient starlight in, and listen
for the dark song of our source summoning,
on summer nights and winter afternoons,
the antiquated powers of the moon. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Along with chicken bones and radioactivity, plastic bottles are what will survive of us (as Philip Larkin said of love) in the geological record. Nearly 36 million are born every day in this country alone. Less than half make it to recycling. Here’s the story from their point of view.

Plastic water bottles
Plastic water bottles
Image: Public Domain Pictures

Still life: Plastic water bottle (used)

Why did you
Make us in
your image?

Replicants
of the prototype, not
goddesses of strange fertility,
not glass, bone, wood or stone, but
generated from dark matter in a split
second to join the silent masses,
monks, soldiers, clones, waiting
in the moonlight of the fridge
for you to drink down our short
stories of ancient waters and bright
sugars until our emptiness
is complete – but there
we part; cast-off, we colonise
every dominion from the highest peak
to the deepest fathom of the abyss
and though the timeline of the waves
degrades us to nanoparticles, yet
we will survive all the brief histories
of your unsuccessful flesh to abide
in every mortal heart undying…
Now only you can save us from
the doldrums of this everlastingness
if you conceive a new skin of beautiful
mortality that grants us too the strange
sea-change of release 
into the mercy of everything
and nothing 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


The Whitechapel fatberg is the largest ever recorded in London, but it has siblings in every major city. It holds a mirror up to consumption and what we throw or flush away. The Museum of London curator, Vyki Sparkes, noted how samples — viewable online via the fatcam live-feed — fascinated the public; “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating and disgusting. The perfect museum object.” 

Dark monster - the Whitechapel Fatberg
The Whitechapel fatberg
Image: Flickr / Creative Commons

Stranger Thing

(The Whitechapel fatberg, c/o the Museum of London)

Chip fat, cold shits, dead paints, hate mail, grease,
used wet-wipes, condoms, nappies, cotton buds,
paracetamol, toenail-crescents, needles, hair –

the dregs, swill, scum, muck, slop we flush away
are harvest festival for the moony monster
who rules the empire of the upside down

beneath the illusion of floorboards, parks and streets;
stranger thing, behemoth, lonely ogre, shy
Caliban created by our multitudes,

dreaming where the sewers slowly flow
through whispering galleries and gargoyle crypts,
bringing offerings to the awful sanctuary. 

We sent our heroes down in hazmat suits
to besiege it; now these abominable lumps
festering in sealed and chilled vitrines

on live-feed for the curiosity of the world
are all that’s left. The glass holds our reflections,
the beautiful ones who love to scare ourselves,

taking selfies with the alien bogey-beast,
our nightmare mirror image even now
regenerating in the dark beneath our feet. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Find out more

Out of Range is Nick Drake’s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. As well as the three poems above, the book includes portraits of ice-core samples, of those living on the margins of the city streets, and of Voyager 1 crossing the threshold of the solar system. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change. Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb first appeared in the book Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energy, produced by the Stories of Change project. I reviewed Energetic for ClimateCultures in August 2018.

For more on the Whitechapel fatberg, see this piece by Vyki Sparkes, the Museum of London’s curator, and this one by Lanes Group plc, the company who worked on behalf of Thames Water to remove the monster from its sewer home… Part of the fatberg is now in the museum’s permanent collection, and footage from the fatcam livefeed Nick mentions is available with this article.

Nick Drake
Nick Drake
A poet whose collections 'The Farewell Glacier' and 'Out of Range' explore the Arctic and climate change through human/non-human voices, and the impact of 'Generation Anthropocene'.
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