Placing the Sea

It's a great pleasure to welcome new Member Wallace Heim with her first post for ClimateCultures. Wallace - a researcher and writer on performance and ecology - recently completed 'the sea cannot be depleted', her online project exploring the military exploitation of the Solway Firth. Here, she shares her reflections on the inspiration behind this powerful project and her creative process.

approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Outrage is compelling. It moves you. It flares around an event, lining up adversaries as it draws temporary certainties from the flux of life.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Estuary to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘customer’. The firings began in the 1980s, from the Scottish side, with the last firings in 2011 or 2013. The MOD justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’. Attempts to retrieve the shells have failed. Their locations are unknown.

DUFERC Meeting 36, 17 June 2004
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Responses to this news slide easily into anger for the injustice of these firings and shock at their stupidity, alongside a desire for accountability or reparations by the military, which will not and cannot be met. But what happens when the clarity of outrage, and its certainties, get mixed up with everyday life? When they somehow bind with a place, when they merge and dissolve into it, like the radiating materials drifting in the Irish seas?

“No brink of the end of humanity was gazed over. It barely made the news … Thousands of years pissing in the sea with everything we can’t digest, all the rancid debris that we could throw in there, all of it, and now this … The military got it the wrong way around. They didn’t place the uranium. No. They placed this estuary. They made it into their place. They made it into their military nuclear sea," the Man says.

Sensing the insensible

‘the sea cannot be depleted’ is an online project, composed of three parts: a spoken word and sound piece for three voices, accompanied by essays and by documentation about the firings and the effects of Depleted Uranium. The sound piece is fictive, based on interviews and research. In it, a Man speaks from the Scottish side of the estuary, the firth, an area of cliffs, bays, granite and farms. A Woman speaks from the English side, flat lands of ancient peat, grasses and farms, around the headland from the civil-military nuclear industries of West Cumbria. And a Diver speaks as she enters the night sea:

“On the edge here, soft sand, bird tracks and worm casts and the plish of water on my bed-bare feet. More salt than fresh. Read the surface for danger. Go in, between heartbeats, mine and the sea’s … Tentacles brush my legs. Wrapping me in the softness of their sucking, jelly skins. They are curious about me. Me. Am I food? … Drifts of something cloud my eyes. Plankton wandering in from far seas. I swim in sex and food and sea talk.”

The form of the piece was shaped by my need to ‘hear’ the radiation, to have it enter somehow directly into the human ear. And by the negotiations of outrage and conflict that were needed in order to understand and express something of the turbulence of unknowable consequences and the transfiguration of uranium let loose in the continual, mixing tidal forces of an estuary. 

Radiation cannot be heard, smelled or touched, but is known through the rattled clicks of the technologies that measure it and make it perceptible to humans. Those sounds are too familiar. I wanted to hear it and to represent it through the human voice, through its vibrations and resonances as well as through the articulations about the effects of knowing what has been buried. The music by Pippa Murphy, too, does not use conventional ‘nuclear’ sounds, but creates a melodic line, that holds, falls apart, dissolves, and reforms.

Nuclear issues are stark and divisive. My certainties are reasoned, ethical and emotive: I find these military actions unjustifiable, expressive of hubris and embedded in a global economy of harm. I had to relate those certainties to the government position which supports the use of Depleted Uranium, and to the scientific reports available, both by independent researchers and the military. The latest find that ‘uncertainty’ characterises what is possible to definitively measure; no one ‘knows’.

From a public road on the Kirkcudbright Training Area
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Against the against

I did not want to set out adversarial arguments between conflicting sides, as if that was a kind of balance or a reliable process towards truth. Nor did I want to hone the subject matter into something more solidly activist. Rather, for the Man and the Woman who reflect on their relation to the sea and the firings, I wanted to keep to the outrage, but as it is compromised and embedded in everyday life.

The action in theatre, by historical conventions, moves with the forces of adversarial human conflict; two sides, with variations. But theatre and performance have, for the past decades, developed other dramaturgical strategies, broadly categorised as the postdramatic, for creating flow, mood, character and vibrancy. The ‘two-sides’ device has seeped away from some performance practices as it doesn’t adequately allow for a genuine expression of a situation or condition. At the same time, in ecological thinking, the entwining of human conflicts with environments, waters, lands, other living beings, or perceptions of nature – are complicating the order offered by adversarial conflict and requiring other ways to comprehend and address what is a condition of life, one that is pervasive, intractable, characterised by uncertainty and a lack of lasting solutions.

The firings were a rehearsal for war and were hostile fire on a home sea. How can one understand the slow corrosion that endures? What does it mean for a place, a people, to cohere with the unseen objects of war? How do you make a life with, or disavow, the symptoms of the civil-military nuclear complex? How does the knowable coalesce with the not-knowable?

“How do you keep safe? 

The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured seaweed and crabs and grit and urine. What they forgot was the sea. They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women. 

It’s probably all right. It has to be. We have to live as if it was. 

The swells of silences, they hold us tight … What adds up, what counts on this coast is what keeps the working public paying taxes. That’s what keeps things quiet … The sea will loosen and unravel all that we can’t talk about," the Woman says. 

Crossing the threshold

The Diver is a different kind of force, ambivalent between the imaginal and the real. She speaks of her sensed perceptions as she repeatedly dives below the sea surface. She sets out with promise and high delight but stays too long. She passes that threshold when coming back would be possible, making a loose association with the nuclear dream and the impossible scramble to return to a world without its waste.

“My body curls and tumbles. It joins the pock-marked hard things that roll along the bed. We’re a pulse of moving things. Another brush of something like dust. My skin starts to bleach with it. I’m burning, down here with no light, no air … I cool my body in a garden of soft-skinned creatures … Everything moves, the living with the dead. Lives within lives. Our cells are the lenses through which we see our futures. We are all transparent to the longer waters of the sea ... ”

The uranium was pulled by brown hands from hot, dusty places, fabricated and made into rich pieces of tradeable merchandise. The military sent those high-priced shells out over the miles of waiting water. In the instant that they touched the sea surface they were waste. As they bedded into the soft sands, they began their dissolution into sea salts and the human imagination. ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ takes off from what seems like discrete events, but those events are only part of a long arc that has no end.

Sandyhills
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Find out more

‘the sea cannot be depleted’ was written and produced by Wallace Heim, with music and sound composition by Pippa Murphy and the voices of Camille Marmié (Diver), Vincent Friell (Man) and Lisa Howard (Woman). The project was funded by Future’s Venture Foundation, Manchester.

You can hear the full dramatised audiopiece for ‘the sea cannot be depleted’, and view Wallace’s extensive research journal and other background documents about Depleted Uranium, the MOD’s firings into the Solway Firth and the area itself, at the sea cannot be depleted. And you can explore more of Wallace’s work via her ClimateCultures profile page.

Wallace has also shared a number of references you might like to explore:

Heim, Wallace (2017). ‘Theatre, conflict and nature’ in Performance and Ecology. What Can Theatre Do? Ed. Carl Lavery. London: Routledge. also in: Green Letters. Studies in Ecocriticism. (2016) 20:3. The journal is behind an academic firewall, and the book is exorbitantly priced. Please email me if you would like a pdf of the article: home[at]wallaceheim[dot]com

On the ‘postdramatic’:

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. (2006). Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby.  London: Routledge.

Jürs-Munby, Karen (ed). (2013). Postdramatic Theatre and the Political. International Perspectives on Contemporary Performance. London: Bloomsbury.

The Gift of Stories

Each contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects brings its author a gift of a book: one that had an impact on me when I first read it and which I've recently rediscovered on a trip to a charity shop. So here is my review of Jim Crace's imaginative 1988 novel, The Gift of Stones. The book goes to Sarah Dry for her excellent piece on her personal selection of three objects that trace one possible timeline of the Anthropocene. Set at the end of the Stone Age, on the cusp of change that overtook it and accelerated us headlong into a new world, a book could hardly be more relevant to our Age of Human: the Age of Unintended Consequences. 

The Gift of Stones is the story of a boy whose entanglement with the shifting world beyond the settled, conservative life of his village turns him into a storyteller. Set at the end of the Stone Age, it’s a parable of unlooked-for consequences as one age morphs into another. And it’s a tribute to the power of story-telling itself: “Salute the liars — they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” Story is a technology.

The narration is shared by the man this boy quickly becomes — when disability causes him to find a novel role as outsider-insider within his industry-fixated village — and his adopted daughter. She casts a wary eye back on his choices as a teller of tall tales, and the way he weaves in spurious detail from the natural world around them to add authenticity to his creations.

“As the bully becomes soldier, and the meany becomes merchant, so the liar becomes bard. Where is the shock in that? … He was never lost for words. He had a name for everything — or invented one. He’d out-hoot an owl, they said … The paradox is this — we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.”

She brings her own outsider’s view of the myopic villagers, who remain unaware of or unconcerned at the chaos on their borders. “My father’s ornateness as a story-teller cannot obscure the one plain truth that needs no hawk for decoration — that the village was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft. It made people purposeful, wealthy, strong” — and blind to change.

Design for North Country Theatres’ production of ‘The Gift of Stones’
Artist: Andy Thursfield © 2015
http://andythursfield.com/

Truth that offers no escape

This is a society of flint diggers, shapers, traders. Stone is the material basis of their culture, stones are what they fashion:

“What they sought was the undisturbed floorstone of flint at depths unknown to worms. This was the act that underpinned the village … Making flints, that’s all they knew. That’s what gave them heart. That was the ritual that kept them going, that filled their time, that stocked their larders, that gave them pride … It made them feel, We do exist, We are important even, We count. They were the stoneys, heart and mind. They blindly fashioned flints [as] gulls laid top-heavy eggs and the winds blew off the sea. That’s how the world was made and never pause for thought. It wasn’t made for boys with stumps.”

The boy — hardly any of the main characters are named — has been attacked by outsiders looking for flint weapons they’ve no intention of bartering for. The villagers must amputate his damaged arm. Ironically, although these craftsmen can fashion the sharpest blades for the job, none of them is able to actually wield the knife on the boy, and this task is left to the attackers — penance for their crime. But the diggers and makers have no use for a one-armed boy so, having been saved by the act that renders him valueless to them, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders far and wide, and when he sees a ship from cliffs a day’s walk away, his storytelling takes off. “What could I say to make it sound attractive? They wanted something crafted and well turned … The truth would never do. It was too fragile and too glum. It offered no escape … Already, in my mind, I knew the story I could tell that night.”

Through his stories — some true, some invented, most somewhere in between — he brings to the stoneys more of the outside world than they glimpse from their routine trading, but it remains a conservative, closed society. All their food comes in barter, making them completely dependent on the price their flint can fetch. The boy’s stories are entertainments for them, just that. His life on the margins of village life — much of it spent beyond its borders — is mostly a solitary one, and his physical and imaginative wanderings bring self-awareness and an awareness of what society means.

“People on their own do foolish things. They don’t know when to stop. They don’t know how. Now you understand why people live in villages, sniffing at their neighbours’ cooking and their conversations. They fear themselves and what would happen if the leash were cut and they were all alone…”

He travels further, from the cliffs to a saltland heath “sodden and yellowed by the winter … sweating in the sun. It smelled like rotten fruit, like beer, like cow’s breath. The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh.” There, he encounters a woman living alone with her daughter and her dog, and so discovers the smallest of communities, but one that needs more of him than simple entertainment saved for when the day’s real work is done:

“She hadn’t cared about my arm. Or knapping flints. Or stone. She’d said, Do this, Do that. Make sure the pot is safe. Here, take the child. And hold the dog. Can’t you kill a chicken? Could you walk down — take this bag — and pull some samphire roots? Before, I’d only ever idly stared through doors to watch the workers shaping stone, to smell their smells, to watch their lives while waiting for the Scram, Get out, We’ve work to do.”

Cover to The Gift of Stones, Picador / Pan Books edition 1989 Photographer: Geoff Brightling © 1989

King of the wild world

Further off, other communities make their living through what they create from the land; when our storyteller meets a group of farmers come to camp on the edge of the heath, he hears a new story from them, “of a farming year that was rhythmic as a drum.”

“The first note in the spring was emmer wheat. Then six-row corn. Then beans. Then flax, the last to bed, the hater of the frost. The goats did well all year on fodder mulched from leaves. Their milk and cheese were said to taste of elm or ash depending on the forest where they fed. In autumn there were unearned gifts in mushrooms, nuts and fruit. In winter there were bacon sides and apples wrinkled like a widow’s cheek, and grain from rat-free, stilted stacks.”

It soon becomes clear that the reason these men are on the heath is to exact revenge on flocks of wild geese that have gathered there. “They’d harvested the field, these airborne slugs,” and now the farmers would “show the wild world who was king by wiping out all geese.”

And so, despite its possibilities of plenty, this farming life is seemingly more precarious than an existence built on the steady need for stone tools and weapons, lived at one remove from raising your own food from unpredictable nature. Farming involves a war on the wild world, and the storyteller can spot the farmers’ false confidence in humans’ ultimate power. “If they’d stayed … they would’ve seen who was king of that wild world. When everybody’s dead, there’ll still be crabs and flies and carcass shrubs and weeds to strip and clothe the world.” (And, showing his native prejudice, he adds: “There’ll still be stone.”)

For his widowed heathland companion, however, the geese are an intimate connection between the wild and the human:

“… geese are people who have died. They say my husband and my boys are geese.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve also heard them say that geese bring babies, that geese bring dreams, that geese are blessings to the poor. I’ve heard it all. Myself, I know the truth. I’ve seen it every year. The geese bring summer and take away the frosts. You’ll see.’”

And it’s connections such as these that the storyteller takes back to his stoney community, crafting his gifts of story. 

“There was the story of the talking goose. It was snow-white except for a golden bill and feet. It said . . . and here my father could devise a goose-borne message that would tease whatever audience he had assembled at his feet. There was the story of the woman and her magic dog. They lived inside a house made out of hair. The dog could cook and stitch and start a fire. The woman hunted rabbits with her mouth. There was the story of the boy with the gift of flames. He could spit fire. Those people who stayed close to him need never fear the cold.”

Stones, chaos and coma

The storyteller’s experiences beyond the village teach him that “the world was cut in two — one for chaos, one for coma … All the outside world required was the liberty to pound and crush, to hammer and to bruise … It didn’t matter if the blows were rained on geese or huts or dogs or boys, so long as there were blows and careless brawls and sudden ghosts of hardship to blow good fortune down.” But the villagers remain complacent. Within their coma, they cannot imagine an end to the simple laws of tradition and economics that their lives are built on, are completely wedded to.

“This was the lesson they had learned whenever trade had slackened in the past: the outside world was never free from stone. There was no sickling of the corn, no scraping hides, no fishing, hunting, wars, no cutting flesh, no knives, no fires, except for stone and stoneys. Without the stoneys, men would have to fight with sticks. And what would women use to cut the cord when children came? Their teeth? What next? Were people just as mean as wolves?”

Eventually, the outside world — the world of chaos — reaches inside the borders of the village. But it’s a different kind of emergency that befalls the stoneys than the one that cost their boy one arm and their village one useful worker. Rather than simply the violence of weapons, of shaped stone turned back upon the stone shapers, this is an end to stone itself: stone as a subtle technology and staple trade. An end which even the storyteller failed to foresee (“There’ll still be stone”). Human ingenuity can always turn to other materials, fashioning other economies, and the war on the wild can take another turn, tightening as it goes and leaving peoples and places ruined in its wake. All of which is raw material for the storyteller when he spies more ships and men “armed with weapons that were gleaming in the oddest way. The stones that made them were as light as leaves; their arrows sped like swallows. Compared, our arrows were like pigeons, plump and clumsy in the air.”

No one will be wanting arrows like pigeons now that ones like swallows can be had, “this sharp and shiny leaf, this bronze.” And it’s this — more than merely the more efficient violence that this new thing, metal, unleashes — that heralds the end of the stoneys’ world, leaving them “as helpless as a beetle on its back.”

The gift of stones is the gift of all technology, as double-edged as the new bronze swords that will sweep away the age of stone. The gift of stories is also two-faced, with lies and truth intertwined. A novel that leaves to one side the prehistoric beliefs and sites — the megalithic monuments and the mysteries of their ritual uses which so fascinate us looking back and seem (falsely) to separate us from them — The Gift of Stones focuses on the daily ritual of precarious living off the land, living with neighbours and outsiders, centres and margins, and with landscape and nature. Stories that we might come to remember.

The storyteller looks back at his home:

“I knew no sight more sad than that — the sight of that small, kempt place, its walls as ordered and as uniform as ribs laid bare, its life as timorous, fettered and discreet as that enjoyed by barnacles on stone. And all around and all beyond, in blues and greys and greens, and fading far away into the whites of distance and of sky, was all the outside world. It seemed as if the outside world was like a mist and the mist was closing in. And all our world was shrinking, breath by breath. Someone, something, was hovering between our village and the sun.”


Find out more

The Gift of Stones — Jim Crace’s second novel — was first published in 1988 and is published by Pan Macmillan.

In 2015, North Country Theatres toured an adaptation of The Gift of Stones. The Director, Nobby Dimon, said in the production programme that the novel “appealed to me because it is about the origins of storytelling and by extension the origins of theatre, because its language has a poetry which is not found often in contemporary fiction and because its remote setting is both strange yet recognisable. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there, but Crace reminds us that even our remote ancestors share intellect and feelings with us.”

A History of Eco-fiction, Part 2

In part 1 of this two-parter, writer Mary Woodbury outlined some of the common ground that helps 'define' eco-fiction: "not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive ... Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space." In this concluding part, Mary looks at how this super-genre has grown and diversified in recent years. And her own story returns to her family trip to Ireland, where we began part 1.

You can read part 1 of A History of Eco-fiction here.

The Canopy Expands

Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the New York Times, Wai Chee Dimock stated in There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea

“This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.”

The world seems less and less hopeful. So many crises exist now that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them. We are reminded in the news, every moment and every day, of school shootings, shaky politics, poverty, starvation, refugee crises, murder, racism, rape, sexual harassment, and hate. Authors take these issues into consideration when building stories, and some of the biggest crises (which don’t necessarily make their way into the news: climate change, extinction, and dwindling wilderness and biodiversity) are subjects making their way into plots, world-building, and tension among characters. We haven’t seen anything like our world before. We imagine the wilderness so that we can hang onto what’s left. We want to write about our world before its best parts are gone. In fiction, there is desperation to cling to unlogged forests, clean oceans, sparkling rivers, vast deserts, and even just backyard ecosystems that mesmerize us. I have sat at a lake in the mountains of British Columbia watching minnows for hours, amazed.

I run a  monthly spotlight on authors who explore climate change in fiction, and have had many interesting discussions. One was with John Atcheson, who stated:

“I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.”

Winds of Change: short stories about our climate
Published by Moon Willow Press, 2015.

Here is the gist: fiction plays an important part in helping readers grasp large concepts that are simply numbers and bytes in the news. Good storytelling, which is not didactic, is an art form that allows the reader to not just escape but reflect, care, and cope. Stephen Siperstein, who contributed poems to Winds of Change, an anthology of stories about climate change that I published in 2015, said that many do not give climate change a thought and that there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without us acting, things will take care of themselves). According to Stephen, “This is the ‘new normal’ of our cognitive and affective lives, and for us to figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.” Bill McKibben preceded this idea in Grist, back in April 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art.”


A short note on Dystopia and Utopia

“Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.

Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia

Dystopian literature may be hopeful, and utopian literature may present problems it doesn’t imagine.


I have noted often that eco-fiction stories are not just frightening but may offer hope. Often we are the antagonist, but redemption transforms us into the protagonist. We can do good together, even in times of crisis. Despite the dismal forecast for how climate change will continue to affect us and all other species on the planet, the strongest stories seem to happen when we “feed the good wolf” — when we look up, face our mistakes, apologize for them, and fix them … when we do what’s right. And what’s right, in this case, is also becoming what’s cool!

The concept of solarpunk is also a positive for literature; it’s not just a fiction genre but a hopeful aesthetic. I interviewed one of its stewards, Adam Flynn, who said:

“As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently).”

‘Wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking’

Ecologically oriented fiction is growing, and it’s entirely organic. Nobody says “hey, here’s a cool genre — write in it!” That’s not how fiction works. What is happening is that people naturally worry about the state of our world, and our future — just like people have been doing from the beginning of time — and some people tell stories about these things. When these things include an exploration of ecological systems around us, and how we relate to them, eco-literature is born and also is evolving with the shaky times. Running eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of books posted at the site, and while it is not exhaustive, almost 600 books are listed. The project is nearing its fifth birthday (on August 13th, 2018), and it’s evident that the number of fiction writers who fashion tales from stark realities is growing. This site has turned into a lifetime project, and in continuing with this study, I have grown fond of the diversity of storytelling within eco-fiction — it’s the most important thing to me, because the authors are all unique with their life experiences. They draw from different places, languages, and cultures, enriching this body of literature with fresh voices.

The Wild in You by Lorna Crozier and Ian McAllister, published by Greystone Books, 2015

I always think back on Wai Chee Dimock’s words on how eco-fiction is evolving: wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking. This description is so apt. Authors are writing, and thus also documenting, the story of how humans evolve in what seems to be a mass extinction. The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity. Various modes of literature place ourselves in this epoch, which is full of sorrow, ghosts, dwindling biodiversity, plastic oceans, and death. It’s also full of embracing the wild within us. I chatted with the wise poet Lorna Crozier, who remarked:

“If we’re lucky enough to get into the wilderness, our bodies and our spirits crackle with life. Our legs on a trail feel stronger. They become animal again. Our sense of smell is honed. Raven speaks to us in one of the 200 dialects ornithologists have been able to measure. When a grizzly inhales my scent, I live for a moment inside his body, inside his mind. How can I not be changed? To get inside myself in a deep and meaningful way, where I might, if I’m lucky, find words to say what can’t be said, I have to get outside. I have to be larger than myself. Rain-drenched, I have to breathe in the wolf, the grizzly, breathe in the wild beauty of the world. And I have to figure out what to do to protect it — to stop all those human things that are causing such harm. The most optimistic part of me hopes the poems are one small way to do that.”

And the most optimistic part of me hopes that fiction will accomplish this.

Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer’s body of new weird fiction novels that are perfect examples of wild and breathtaking storytelling. I referenced his work in my three-part series at SFFWorld.com, Exploring the Ecological Weird. When I talked with Jeff about the Southern Reach Trilogy, he said:

“I’ve always explored weird real-life biology in my fiction, especially in the context of fungi, which often seems alien in its details. These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal — North Florida wilderness — and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.”

As we walk along the heavy Fleet Streets of our time — as W B Yeats did in his day, thinking of The Lake Isle of Innisfree — it’s not enough to dream about nine bean rows, linnet’s wings, a bee-hive, and a small cabin made of wattles and clay; though there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are on the global Fleet Street now, one that is being extinguished. Authors are telling our story, and in some way it’s an old story, but in many ways it’s a new one, now that the Anthropocene has been recognized. 


The reason we went to Ireland is because my mother’s relatives came from there long ago, and it was her dream to visit the country someday. Dad, unfortunately, had early onset Parkinson’s disease, and he retired early and never was able to travel far. After he died, I relied on my mother more and more for her old mountain ways and advice (she grew up in the Appalachian hills with parents who lived off the land), and my husband and I wanted to take her on a lifelong dream trip to her ancestor’s homeland, a place she had dreamed of visiting since a child.

Mom and me at Fitzpatrick’s pub in Doolin. I made a heart around us, because I love her!

I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since we visited. I see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns. I see the big ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but the closer the boat got to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere. I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear the cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong North Atlantic winds. No matter where we go there are verdant fields and groves of trees and cows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a faerie may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like the field of literature called eco-fiction.


Find out more

You can read part 1 of a History of Eco-fiction here.

Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction — including her interviews with John AtchesonAdam FlynnLorna Crozier and Jeff VanderMeer quoted in this post. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.

Mary wrote a three-part series Exploring the Ecological Weird for SFFWorld.com, and published Winds of Change: stories about our climate — an anthology of various authors — at Moon Willow Press (2015).

There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea, Wai Chee Dimock’s review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, was published in The New York Times (5/5/17).

What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art by Bill McKibben, was published by Grist (22/4/05).

Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia was published at Electric Lit (5/12/17).

You can find out more about the Holocene Extinction — also known as “the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction … the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity” — in this Wikipedia article.

You can also read author David Thorpe’s ClimateCultures posts on utopian and dystopian fictions via his profile page in our Members Directory.

A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

ClimateCultures welcomes new Member Mary Woodbury with the first in her two-part series on the development of eco-fiction. 

Eco-fiction, Mary suggests, is "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres."

You can read part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction here.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland

When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.

You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.

And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

from The Stolen Child, W B Yeats

What is Eco-fiction?

One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:

  • The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  • The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  • Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  • Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):

“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”

Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history.  Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds. 


A short note on climate change in fiction

These days, many terms have sprung up to address the ‘hyperobject’ that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it. 


A History

Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:

“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system.
Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system:
Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life?
Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”

So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy.  According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:

“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”

There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.

Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905). Courtesy, Wiki Commons.

We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.

One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and  nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection. 


In part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary will look at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness – and human connection to these things – into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.


Find out more

Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.

She wrote a three-part series for SFFWorld.com: Exploring the Ecological Weird (see links to other parts in the article). And you can read these interviews with Ecolit Books and Writing Forums, where Mary talks about her work and inspiration as a writer and publisher and about environmental literature. 

Mary also wrote three articles on climate change and storytelling for the Free Word Centre — where, of course, you can also find the writers’ panel discussions and more from the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts climate change events for writers, which I helped TippingPoint organise at the Free Word Centre. Which also gives me another opportunity to plug the excellent anthology of all the poems, stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from these events, published by Cambria Books as a free ebook.

For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece:

The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

Whenever a ClimateCultures Member contributes their personal nominations for our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I send them a book that's had an impact on me. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is certainly a novel that packs a punch, and I'm delighted to have sent a copy - as usual, discovered in a recent visit to an Oxfam bookshop - to Nancy Campbell for her post A Personal History of the Anthropocene - Three Objects #7. Here is my review.

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

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

 

The Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An alien heat

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

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

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

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

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Artist: unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dangerous place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Find out more

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

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

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

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