Near / Far

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

It's a great pleasure to share visual artist Rebecca Chesney's first post for ClimateCultures. Rebecca -- whose work is informed by her research into the protection of the environment, conversations with scientists and a desire to make work specific to chosen locations -- describes her experiences of environmental change in California while on a residency there and shares some of the images she produced.

I am a visual artist based in Preston, Lancashire. My interests lie in how we perceive the landscape: how we romanticise and translate our rural and urban surroundings; how we define, describe and categorise nature. I look at how politics, land ownership, management and commercial value all influence the environment we live in. Air pollution, water quality, invasive plant species, weeds, bees and weather are all subjects my work has dealt with previously, with the results taking the form of installations, interventions, drawings, maps and walks.

In 2016 I was invited to attend a residency at Montalvo in California. At that time California was experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record. Having just finished a winter here where storms Desmond, Eva and Frank had caused extensive flooding in Lancashire and Cumbria, I was interested in looking at extreme weather episodes and learning more about how climate change is affecting different geographical sites.

Split into two trips, my first visit in September 2016 was five years into the drought.

Bark beetle attack

Situated an hour south of San Francisco, Montalvo sits on a hillside surrounded by redwoods and oaks. The river running through the site had long since run dry; the warm air, sweet with the smell of the gigantic redwoods, was full of dust. My visit coincided with the run up to the presidential election, which became a frequent topic of discussion amongst the staff, other residents and locals alike with the majority agitated, nervous and deeply concerned about what the future might hold.

Dry river beds, reservoirs at historically low levels and the outbreak of wildfires nearby all revealed the extent of the drought, but it was the sheer number of dead trees on the hillsides in Yosemite National Park that I found completely overwhelming. I saw thousands and thousands of dead trees. The continued drought and subsequent increase of bark beetle attack had resulted in huge losses: the US Forest Service estimated a loss of 66 million trees in the Sierra Nevada in 2016, with the most vulnerable species being Ponderosa Pine, Incense-cedar, Sugar Pine and White Fir Trees.

Dead trees in Yosemite National Park, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

During my travels, I started to make drawings in my sketchbook of the exit holes of the bark beetles found on dead branches and tree trunks. I was drawn to the random patterns made of tiny holes, singly meaningless, but collectively devastating. And with these drawings I embroidered fabric with the patterns of dots, each individual mark taking time to create.

Near, embroidered cotton material.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

Returning from Yosemite National Park my journey took me through the vast agricultural Central Valley. The nation’s leading producer of almonds, avocados, broccoli, grapes, peppers and many other crops, this highly managed area is in stark contrast to the native forests of the mountains. Almonds are California’s most lucrative exported agricultural product: jobs and livelihoods depend on their success. However, almonds alone use approximately 10% of California’s total water supply. It was not difficult to see that thirsty crops in a time of drought can present difficult dilemmas and make us question our priorities.

Central Valley, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
www.rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

The time between my first and second visit to California brought many changes. On my return in spring 2017 Trump, elected and sworn in as President since my first trip, continued to be the main focus of intense discussion and deep concern: he had already withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. The drought had been declared over, with above average rainfall and storms over the winter months resulting in numerous landslides and local road closures around Montalvo. Further south, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 was damaged beyond repair, with the extreme rainfall causing it to crack and sink on the shifting mountainside. With no option but demolition it is expected to take over a year to replace, and with no detour available it leaves communities and businesses cut off and isolated.

During my second trip I was invited to meet Ramakrishna Nemani, a senior earth scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Professor Eric Lambin at Stanford University. Nemani’s research uses satellite and climate data to produce ecological nowcasts and forecasts, while Lambin’s research is looking at land use change using GIS, remote sensing and socio-economic data. Providing an insight into these complex subjects, both meetings helped me understand the complex layering of issues involved and the need for balance within ecosystems.

Sudden Oak Death

I was also able to attend a Sudden Oak Death bioblitz workshop with Matteo Garbelotto from UC Berkeley. Caused by the microscopic pathogen Phytophthora ramorumSudden Oak Death (SOD) is an exotic disease introduced from an unknown region of the world into California 20 – 25 years ago. During the workshop I learned how to ID the disease and was asked to collect leaves from Californian Bay Laurel trees. Although carriers of the disease, Bay Laurels don’t die of SOD; however they infect surrounding oak trees that do die from the disease. I enjoyed being involved in the bioblitz and learned a lot about the complicated relationships between humans and the environment and the consequences of tiny imbalances in nature.

Continuing on from my sketches and embroideries about tree loss in the Sierra Nevada, I used data supplied by NASA satellites to produce a series of prints. Showing tree losses caused by the drought, bark beetle attack and wildfires in the last four years, the resulting images look like maps of swarms: intense and dark in places, sparse in other areas. Where the embroideries (Near) show individual minute dots, the prints (Far) reveal kilometre upon kilometre of dead trees visible via satellite.

Far, print derived from Nasa satellite imagery of tree loss in Sierra Nevada.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

The small made large

Now back in Lancashire, I have had time to reflect on what I learned from my trip to California. Although different in so many ways, both regions are similar in facing increased pressure from the changing climate.

I saw how even the slightest shift in the balance of nature can have a huge impact on the health of ecosystems: seemingly minute actions we make have consequences. I saw how the economics of land influence decision-making and often take priority over the conservation of natural heritage. And the political uncertainty and upheaval added a new dimension from which to experience the situation. This amazing opportunity to visit some incredible places and meet world-leading experts all contributed to a fascinating trip that will continue to influence me and my work into the future.


Find out more

Rebecca’s images of Near / Far have been published in Uniformannual Twentyeighteen, available from Uniformbooks124 pages with contributions from 24 writers, artists and researchers.

Rebecca’s trip was supported by Arts Council England and Lancaster Arts, and you can find more of her work at rebeccachesney.com 

You can explore the work of the Montalvo Arts Center at their site.

The problems and management of Sudden Oak Death in California are described at the site of the California Oak Mortality Task Force. And the Firewise Madera County site has a well-referenced article on the dangers of Bark Beetle attack on the state’s trees.

You can explore the ecological forecasting (and nowcasting) work of NASA’s Ames Research Center at their Ecocast site.

Want to know more about ‘bioblitz’? Have a look at the European Citizen Science Association’s Bioblitz Group and the UK’s National Bioblitz Network.

Rebecca mentions Eric Lambin’s research; his 2012 book An Ecology of Happiness looks like an interesting read.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

Waiting for your next set of three Anthropocene objects, then six turn up at the same time? It was my good fortune to start 2018 with not just one contribution to our A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects series, but two. Following on from Veronica Sekules' offering last week, I'm really pleased to be sharing this post from poet Nancy Campbell. Nancy's choice of objects demonstrate how past and present elide as our environment changes and how, whatever choices lie ahead, travel is always forward. 

As we approach the half-way point in our collections, each of the seven selections so far illustrate how each take on the relationship between humanity and the more-than-human is personal, nuanced and powerful. There is more than enough Anthropocene to go around.

An Arctic past – bone kayak

The kayak is no bigger than the palm of my hand. It belonged to a child who lived north of the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland during the 1930s. This little boy grew up to be a traveller, eventually settling in Scotland, but throughout his adult life he kept this tiny boat to remind him of his childhood by the waters of Disko Bay.  

Model kayak – Eastern Arctic (Inuit: Nunavimiut, 1900-1909, Ivory 3.2 x 2.1 x 13.8 cm) Photograph: McCord Museum © 2018 collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca

This kayak isn’t ancient – it was probably made by an artist in the early twentieth century. Yet the artistic tradition it represents dates back hundreds of years to the thirteenth century. Similar toy carvings have been found at archaeological sites across the Arctic, some as early as 500 CE. They were made by the Thule people, whose maritime skills enabled them to migrate eastwards from Alaska following the slow path of the bowhead whale. They throve in the harsh Arctic environments where they settled thanks to their knowledge of the sea, their advanced designs for tools and ingenious modes of travel.

The subjects these artists chose to carve were significant. Survival depended on kayaking or sledging to find food. Children would be taught to paddle young, when barely walking, and even before that they would be given toys representing boats and sleds to encourage their thoughts towards the sea and the ice. Play is after all the best preparation for life.

People I met in Greenland were keen to tell me about the means their ancestors had used to survive in that harsh environment. The Thule, and later the Inuit, were dependent on sea mammals for food. Whales and seals would be hunted from the kayak. Nothing that was caught could be wasted. A whale carcass supplied meat for food, blubber for oil (used for both light and cooking), and bones to build structures and make tools. Seal skins would be stretched and dried, then used to cover new kayaks, or provide clothing for the kayaker. Seal intestines provided the sinews used to sew the skin onto the boat frames. (These ribbed, skin-covered vessels even emulated the shape of the mammals they would chase.) The hunter out on the sea was camouflaged, and even protected, by his own prey. His life was just as precarious as that of the animal he hunted.

Of course, the material from which this toy kayak is made also comes from an animal. In the century or so since it was carved, the power relationship between humans and other creatures on the planet has shifted dramatically, and our perception of the ethics of the use of animal materials in art – and even life – is likewise, rightly, changing. Now the majority of Greenlanders rely on imported house-building kits and clothing, rather than using animal products for their protection. You can walk into a supermarket in llulissat and buy expensive golden delicious apples and cans of baked beans, hot peppers in jars from South Africa and beers from Denmark. Participating in the global economy has given Greenlanders more choice, but not true autonomy; with the added disadvantage that a formerly sustainable lifestyle has been exchanged for one that is costly both to the individual and the environment.

In my travels in the Arctic I have met people who are determined to continue to hunt and live in traditional ways, and thus this object which I take to represent the ‘past’ elides with the present – but the environment which supports such activities is fast changing.

That young boy whose journey began in Ilulissat was the stepfather of the writer Nasim Marie Jafry, and when he passed away a few years ago, Nasim gave his kayak to me, knowing that I too loved Greenland. Each time I look at it I admire the frugal existence and respect for materials that it represents, and wonder at how objects can travel further through time and space than we makers might anticipate.

An England now – wooden paddle

After my first visit to Greenland I found it difficult to adapt to life back in England, so I sought something that would provide a sense of continuity – for me, this was forward motion on water. I began to kayak.

Kayak paddle Photograph: Pam Forsyth © 2018 kayakacrossthewater.co.uk

The kayak was introduced to the UK soon after its adoption by Arctic explorers in the early twentieth-century; kayaking has subsequently become a popular sport around the world. These days most kayaks you see on British waterways are cast in brightly coloured polyethylene. But my friend Paul made his own, following a traditional Greenlandic design. He constructed a wooden frame, and stretched a nylon sheet tightly over it to form the waterproof hull. It took a long time. How did people do this, he wondered, without drill-bits and spirit levels – and lipstick? (See the link below if you’re curious where the lipstick came in.)

I was keen to try the Greenlandic techniques for myself, and last summer with Paul’s help I made a paddle. Like the boat, the paddle is made to personal specifications – you measure your height and the span of your arms, and calculate the length of the loom and the angle of the tips. A six-by-four plank of wood is marked up in pencil. The excess wood is gradually planed away, and the remainder sandpapered and oiled until it is contoured as finely as any aircraft wing. Paul and I adapted as we went along: realising the cedar was quite soft, we replaced the tips with white oak to withstand knocks and scrapes.

Compared to conventional ‘Euro blades’ with their broad faces, the Greenland paddle is skinny as the pole used by a high-wire artist. With it I move differently through the water: rather than spearing and scooping, I stroke the river away from me. Until you get the knack of this, it can feel as if you are paddling with almost nothing. It’s like being on a bicycle with no peddles. You learn to appreciate the nuances of the water, its flows and eddies. I admire – even more – the skill of those kayakers who first designed the craft and who navigated much rougher waters than those I travel.

I am in thrall to the kayak’s possibilities as a sustainable form of transport, although I rarely make a journey for anything other than pleasure. (My routes to the library and market and so on remain over ground.) Yet I’m aware that our relationship to rivers is changing. I see with increasing frequency reports in the media showing people escaping flooded homes with the aid of rescue teams in kayaks. As the climate changes, I have no doubt that my paddle may be called upon for new, less leisurely adventures.

A global future – metal islands

The rivers are not the only stretches of water that are changing. NASA calculates average sea level rise at 3.41mm per year, caused by the expansion of water as it warms and the melting of polar ice caps. There’s a conceivable risk of a sea level rise of greater than one metre by the end of this century. This scenario would see the Netherlands, Bangladesh and the Philippines, among other countries, lose significant amounts of land.

Many island nations are already experiencing the destructive force of new weather systems. Prime Minister Gaston Browne of the Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda has chided the industrial world. “The sadness is that these disasters are not occurring in these islands through their own fault,” he said in a statement to the United Nations in 2015. “They are happening because of the excesses of larger and more powerful countries, who will not bend from their abuse of the world’s atmosphere, even at the risk of eliminating other societies, some older than their own.”

The populations of some island nations are becoming climate refugees. In recent years the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands (a Pacific island nation which includes Bikini Atoll), finding their coastal homes no longer inhabitable, began to resettle in the US state of Arkansas. As an alternative to such tragic displacement, some countries are adopting new technologies, and imagining future floating cities inspired by boats. The Dutch, for example, are addressing the question of what to do when the water defence systems that protect the Netherlands become obsolete. “In these times of rising sea levels, overpopulated cities and a rising number of activities on the seas, building up the dykes and pumping out the sands is perhaps not the most efficient solution,” says Olaf Waals, project manager at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands.

The solution? “Floating ports and cities,” says Waals decisively. Within the next few decades, the question will be not how to prevent the sea overwhelming the land, but how to best enable life upon the water – initially as an extension of existing territory, but eventually as an alternative for it. Waals and his team of engineers have designed tessellating panels on which new cities could be built. These floating triangles are resistant to the force of storms; they can be anchored to the sea bed or moored to the shore. At present the panels are few enough to fill the Institute’s testing basin, but the huge, flexible island could expand to support a city-sized settlement of homes, farms, parks, recreational areas, and ports.

Floating island: The Maritime Research Institute Photograph: Marin © 2018 marin.nl

Waals believes such a structure would also be an ideal setting for sustainable energy projects that require access to the sea. Offshore wind farms, tidal energy, wave energy and floating solar panels would power the artificial island. In the future, will water not be our way of travelling from place to place, but a permanent home? What will we take with us onto these twenty-first century arks? And will humans adopt a more responsible attitude to the environment when we are no longer on our element?

Find out more

Nancy was recently appointed Britain’s 2018 Canal Laureate and you can see more of her work at her website.

You can learn about the experience of making a Greenland kayak paddle at Kayak across the water and making a Greenland kayak at Oxford Kayak Tours.

The writer Nasim Marie Jafry gave Nancy her stepfather’s bone kayak; you can discover her work at Velogubbed legs – including her short piece, Coxsackie, in Nancy’s A Book of Banished Words  (from her Polar Tombola project), and the link between Coxsackie virus, the name of her website and her novel, The State of Me.

The Marin Institute (Maritime Research Institute Netherlands), where Olaf Waals is working on floating portsand cities, is holding a seminar ‘The Floating Future’ in Wageningen on 7th March 2018. And architectural firm Waterstudio and the Seasteading Institute – “a nonprofit think-tank working to provide a machinery of freedom to choose new societies on the blue frontier” – both also envisage a floating future.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

After a Christmas and New Year break, ClimateCultures returns with our latest post in the series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. It's a great pleasure to welcome curator Veronica Sekules as a new Member. Veronica's personal contribution of three Anthropocene objects charts our species' shifting relationship with the planet. Art, artefact and accidental discovery mark our place in the world within a movement from a visionary symbol of eternity to the hubris of a transitory age and on to a time which will be witnessed by what endures after us. 

Cosmic Man – among the elements

My first personal Anthropocene object is Hildegard of Bingen’s image of Cosmic Man from her Book of Divine Works (1230 CE). It is a beautiful manuscript page, painted by her in reds, blues, white and gold, depicting a symbolic vision to convey some of the mysteries of Christian belief and devotion. It is full of complexity and for me equally prescient in the age of the Anthropocene as it was in the middle ages.

The Cosmic Man – published in ‘Liber Divinorum Operum’, by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) Source: ‘Medieval Art’, by Veronica Sekules (OUP 2001)

At the centre is a naked man with arms outstretched among the elements, both demonstrating strength and vulnerability. He represents humankind equally dominating and subservient to the world. Around him, the concentric circles of the universe, moon, clouds, water, animals and creatures, are ultimately surrounded by God, who forms an extended flamelike humanoid figure encircling all, his face (and Christ’s) presiding over everything. Hildegard herself is shown seated, adoring and studious beneath this universe.

This represents a vision which is both humble and hubristic about both the power and subservience of human agency, placing man and god united in ultimate supremacy over the world and the creatures within it. For me this epitomises a major aspect of the genesis of the Anthropocene, and of its problems. Humans are both progenitors and victims, witnesses to the majesty of the world and yet main actors in its fate, good or bad. Even to a Christian believer like Hildegard, God’s flamelike presence seems to be double-edged, both guarding the universe and warning it.

Massey Ferguson TE20 – pioneering machine

My second Anthropocene object is a Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor, marketed in Britain and indeed around the world in the 1950s, as part of a ‘New Elizabethan age’ of innovation in farming. It had over 60 different attachments and was a pioneering machine in the burgeoning oil-fuelled, carbon-consuming history of mechanisation, which was seen then to lead to greater wealth, power, profits and plenty for all.

Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor Photograph: BJ Tractors © 2018 http://bjtractors.co.uk/html/fergusonT20TED.html

Very rapidly, the TE20 was superseded by ever more powerful and giant machines for land management, crop spraying and harvesting, but it was one of the first signs of all the panoply of tools and chemicals which changed post-war farming and have accelerated the devastating effects of climate change and been so dangerous for nature. Farming is still seen, even increasingly, as a global agribusiness in an intensely greedy and competitive way, and machines to manage greater stretches of hedgeless land are still seen as its future. The Massey Ferguson was an icon of its time and has now been consigned to history – or indeed heritage, making appearances at vintage tractor events, but it would be good if its oil-age descendants could join it. I still hope and believe that alternative, equally innovative, but less polluting farming futures are possible.

Loch Hourn stone – witness to change

My third object is a stone. It looks like a piece of complicated layer cake. Some years ago, we were on a family holiday in Scotland, playing games in a wonderful rich geological landscape. On one loch beach, we each competed to find the ugliest stone, the silliest stone, the most deformed stone, the most regular stone, the most beautiful stone.

Loch Hourn stone
Photograph: Veronica Sekules © 2018

My 10 year-old son Jack’s stone won the prize as the most beautiful. It was the one we wanted to keep. So we put it in a really obvious place ready for when we returned, while we went round the bay to continue our walk. On our return, could we find it? It took two hours of painstaking, detailed, careful scrutiny. For, distinctive as it was, it blended perfectly back into its landscape.

Finally, in triumph, we found it and once again it seemed so obviously the best of stones. Subsequently, it has become a metaphor for us, both for beauty, and for ordinariness, for how something distinctive can blend into the norm.

It is now removed from its natural habitat, so it has become more of a heritage phenomenon. But equally, as a piece of metamorphic igneous rock and originally from deep inside the earth, it is witness to enormous change, to heaving movement of the planet more than 2,000 million years ago. It has endured long before human history, and the cousins of this stone remaining in the environment will continue to do so, imperceptibly changing, long after we have gone. So for me, as an object of the Anthropocene, it is all about a world which will outlive us, no matter what damage we effect.

 

Find out more

The life and work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), Benedictine abbess, visionary, preacher, writer, composer and Saint, is explored in this Wikipedia page, and there is an interesting article by Mary Sharratt on Huffington Post, 8 reasons why Hildegard of Bingen matters now.

If you‘d like to know more about the innovation of the Massey Ferguson TE20, Farm Machinery website has a short article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the tractor that changed the world of agriculture. And taking the longer view, an episode of the BBC World Service series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy discusses the impact of the Plough.

Among the wealth of stone-related materials you can find on the web (and the real things, outside your front door, on the beach, in the hills, fields or woods, and in town and city), BBC Radio 3’s The Essay recently broadcast Cornerstones, a series of five meditations on different stones around the UK from artists and researchers; and environmental humanist Jeffery Jerome Cohen has written Stone: an Ecology of the Inhuman (2015, Minnesota University Press). An excerpt – Geophilia, or the Love of Stone – is available at Continent.

You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Veronica’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures in the next few weeks.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

— approx reading time: 9 minutes

In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia (‘Doggerland’)
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary

Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.

Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.

I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:

aggradation, bathymetric, borehole data, eustatic, isopach, progradation

The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:

Wade in with palaeogeographers,
archaeologists, palaeogeologists,
cartographers who swim
into the past for a living, 
who disturb and reconfigure depths.

Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:

A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters. 
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.

Letting go of research and sinking into the sea

Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.

Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.

I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:

And Atlantis can once again
Rise from the ocean
And the musical, beautiful sound will resound
And shake in every tree …

I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).

Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523

I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.

Here is a note from my journal:

5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around the ears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].

After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:

The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also to themselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk to themselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us through this film too, and not.

“Doggerland swamps”
Photograph: Justina Hart © 2017
http://justinahart.com

The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman

One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.

This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.

This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II: 

‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with     saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clue about me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’

Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.

So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.

After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.

Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sharing the poem – feedback and editing 

Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.

Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:

Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouth
into blue – blue is my element and green –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:

Here I come: pushed from the river’s veins
into blue – blue is my dwelling place –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through
paradise to Germany, Holland, France.

Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.

‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘the uplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’

Here’s the final refrain:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through 
plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.

 I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem: 

‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is 8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendar years ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.

Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic

The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.

Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d  welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.

The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.

By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.

Find out more

You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.

Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.

And you can find out about Second Light Live workshops and publications.

There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!