Filmmaker James Murray-Whitereviews Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis — a book urging the cultivation of human virtues in a time of crisis and the rejection of lazy thinking.
approximate Reading Time: 3minutes
This pocket-sized book arrived randomly, appealing to my curiosity with ominous images of two skulls on its cover — with a glowing blurb from Margaret Atwood, speaking of “truth-filled meditations about grace in the face of mortality”. Learning to Die has set my mind on fire, and its moral questioning and truth-telling project will rumble deeply on within me.
The mind of the wild
In three short sections, 100 pages in total, Canadian poet-philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky take us on a voyage beyond ancestral time, through the story of our planet and the biosphere. It makes use of recent science – for example, the life of the oriental hornet, vespa orientalis, which has a photosynthetic organ: the bright yellow band on its abdomen is the only organism known to man with this – and deep philosophy that skewers any cosiness or lazy thinking we might be deluding ourselves with.
The first section, Robert Bringhurst’s The mind of the wild, is spaciously captivating, inviting us to “let ourselves become enlarged” through ideas and rational truth both forming as poems within the mind. This is unified polymath-eism at its most sparkling, and writing that touches readers deeply because it is spartan in style and speaks to the heart: “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.”
Bringhurst makes some crucial points in the conclusion of this section. “Civil disobedience remains an important political and sociological tactic” – this as popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion are gaining great momentum here in the UK and now around the world, and we are all speaking truth to the corrupt political power that has emerged from our very human-systemic thinking. It is thinking that is not at all eco-systemic, or even engaging with the eco.
Learning to die
In section two, A ship from Delos, Jan Zwicky urges the cultivation of human virtues – awareness, humility, courage, justice, amongst others — to gain the moral virtue needed to face the breakdown that is underway, and that we have caused:
To be aware that death is imminent is not to wallow in despair; it is precisely not that. To be aware is to acknowledge what is the case … Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.
Zwicky — who suggests that “we attend also to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” — challenges us for simply preaching to the converted, and advises that the solution will be found within simplicity, cultivated through these values – be they Socratic, Buddhist, faith-based, or deep ecology focussed:
Thinking like an ecosystem – forms of life are also forms of meaning. When they are lost, meaning is also lost. We actively desire the health of the ecological community to which we belong. We want to do what it takes to be at home.
The final chapter, Afterword: Optimism and Pessimism, is a long and detailed take-down of American academic Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), in which the esteemed psychologist — who I’ve seen delight crowds across the UK with his finely honed public lectures on living in less violent times — puts forward a new humanistic and technologically-focused salve for thriving rather than survival or extinction. I hope we see Bringhurst and Zwicky debate with Pinker someplace soon!
Learning to die is a book of urgent brevity. I’d love to be buried with this back-pocket volume so that its inherent wisdom and my vegetable body may merge and decompose together, giving back to the ecosystem something of the planet that we have nourished from it.
James Murray-White took a break from editing his Finding Blake film to review Cornerstones: subterranean writings. This new collection explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.
The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.
As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.
As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.
Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.
Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.
There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.
On the borders of change
I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.
I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.
For Gifts of Sound & Vision, Mark Goldthorpe chooses Earthrise — a film about a moment a half-century ago that transformed our vision of the world and what might be possible in this short historic episode, modern human civilisation.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
Gifts of Sound & Vision is a series where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.
The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…
Fifty years ago, on 28th December 1968, three men returned to Earth after a six-day journey during which they became the first humans ever to escape the gravity of their home planet. They had slipped into deep space, entered the moon’s gravity and made ten orbits of that world to observe what people assumed one day might become a new base for interplanetary exploration.
As such, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first humans to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the first to see the Earth rising above the moon’s grey horizon. As this excellent 30-minute film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee shows, using archive footage from that 1968 Apollo 8 mission alongside present-day recollections from all three crew members, the Earth offered the only patch of colour they could see in all the universe. The deep black of space, countless sharp white stars, the moon’s grey endless plains and craters rolling on and on just 60 miles beneath their capsule — and the one white-blue-green-brown marble that emerged in front of them, over 240,000 miles away.
That thumb-sized ball was home, and the colour photo they took of that first Earthrise — an instinctive, spur-of-the-moment act and a wholly unplanned byproduct of their mission — had an immediate and deep impact on everyone who saw it after their return fifty years ago, just as the sight of distant home had a lasting impact on those three men.
The ‘whole Earth’ image became the emblem of a new environmental awareness, the icon of an emerging age, and the hope of those three astronauts that national boundaries and short-term, near horizon problems might somehow start to lose their fatal grip on our imaginations. They admit in this film to being disappointed that this hope has not been delivered on, yet.
In 1968, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 320 parts per million — already significantly above levels experienced by any human civilisation, along with the increases in global average atmospheric temperatures and sea levels that go with elevated CO2. 50 years later, our planet’s atmosphere is 410 ppm CO2 and this is still rising. The record-breaking temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidity, habitat destruction and species loss all also keep on rising.
50 years from now?
This is all uncharted territory, as was the space between Earth and our moon before 1968. The Apollo 8 crew’s expedition was a mission of firsts, and so is ours. They came back with a new way of seeing our world, and we also have to find our own and to deliver on the hope that Borman, Lovell and Anders found in a place that’s the furthest from home that any human had ever been or has been since. There is no other home.
It’s worth watching the film for the words of those three men then and now as much as for the images, and I’ve avoided quoting them here in the hope that you will go and watch it for yourself. But here is one to end with, which speaks to the power of imagination and of art of all kinds to trigger imagination at individual and collective scales, and to inspire new hope:
“The photograph itself was the thing that everybody liked. I mean it represented Apollo 8. And it could be almost like saying it was the fourth astronaut, because it was there and it did the job. One frame had showed exactly our existence.”
Find out more
Earthrise (2018) by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is available to view at the Global Oneness Project, of which Emmanual and Cleary Vaughan-Lee are directors. You can also download a series of school and university level discussion guides about the film, and their other projects.
You can find Time and Tide, my previous post for this series on the Gifts of Sound and Vision page, where future contributions will also be collected as part of our Curious Minds section.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. This book’s objects offer a mirror test for our ‘Age of Human’ — and conceptual links to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
Objects have a power over the human mind. They live in the world we live in, yet open into others — worlds of imagination and of experience. And maybe this power increases with apparent distance, even while the objects remain close to hand: distant pasts and places, distant cultures, distant natures. Maybe even distant futures, ones we now must reimagine as radical departures from our own experience.
Objects have a place in the growing ClimateCultures archive, of course: our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects has already reached 27, offering its own imaginative range of surprising totems of human presence on the planet, a planet being reprocessed. And some of my strongest memories from TippingPoint events remain those small group discussions where we each brought objects and shared accounts of their personal significance within rapidly changing natural and social contexts. It always seems special to add our story of material encounters to the accumulation of all those other ‘small stories’ that make up and question larger narratives. Objects have voices too.
This impressive book allows many objects to speak to our imaginations of pasts, presents and futures in what we are beginning to recognise — haltingly, imperfectly and with much debate over the terms and even the name of this invention-discovery — as the Anthropocene. The Age of Human. Or the age of some humans at least: those busy undermining planetary stability, resilience and value; more hopefully, the coming age of other humans, those now excluded and undermined in this Age of Precarity but whose voices also ‘we’ must hear, learn from, change with. There’s no clear, honest way of removing the quote mark around ‘us’ in this age, of refusing to acknowledge the provisional status of our knowledge of who we are. As the editors remind us, “Objects, too, can disrupt a sense of human exceptionalism,” and it is far from simply a ‘human’ age.
Objects to think with
Future Remains emerged from a “playful, performative space” — a ‘slam’ of artists and scientists to explore a Cabinet of Curiosities for this new age — and became an exhibition, a workshop and then a book. In all its guises and stages, it remains a provocation. What sort of new age is this; who and what produced and reproduces it; what is the nature of this world; what are its physical signs, wrapped up in nature-culture and available for us to think with, work on, act through?
In their preface, Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett warn us that objects demand caution as well as curiosity. While curiosity draws us outside ourselves — “can shake up our place in the world” — objects can also blind us to wider horizons, making either their exotic or their familiar worlds more absolute:
“Objects, then, can just as easily outshine as open up other worlds. The challenge is to ask not only what objects reveal but also what they hide. We need to take notice of less familiar things [to] entertain the possibility of other beings, other relations in the world, and other cosmologies not easily subsumed within the dominant tropes of Western science animated by one version of the Anthropocene.”
While it’s the fable-of-civilisational-progress version of the Anthropocene that the editors explicitly warn us to examine and hold up against other lights, it’s a useful caution against any singular, definitive story that the many contending Anthropocene labels seek to make the ‘official’ narrative. Curiosity, then, should remain our dominant mode of exploration, powered by humility in our lack of complete knowledge, just as in our lack of complete control.
Here, I’ve selected eight of the book’s entries.
Anthropocene in a Jar
On a family trip to the beach, Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller dug into the sand and attempted to answer their children’s question: “What causes the stripes?” They began to build an answer between them — a tale of “abstract earth processes … the moon’s tug on the sea, the wave’s tug on the sand and the shells” — trying to make it palpable to a child’s mind and their own as they continued digging.
Later, collecting samples in a jar,
“we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunnelling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains — things one could classify as ‘natural’. And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with toes in the sand — things one could classify as ‘human.’ … Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”
The Age of Man
Through Plowshare, a 1970s Atomic Energy Commission film, Joseph Masco unpicks the grand narrative of the Great Acceleration: the exponential age of plenty we began to rapidly carve out after the Second World War. Powered by Enlightenment dreams of human mastery of nature, the perfectibility of human nature, Plowshare illustrates how the splitting of the atom seemed to “supercharge this imaginary … singling the imminent arrival of a superabundance, promising continuing breakthroughs in health, energy, and consumer economy.” This dream
“… if it did not end in the fiery flash of nuclear war, would push relentlessly and inevitably toward a perfected capitalist society. This was the first ‘age of man’ — a nuclear-powered fantasy that miraculously transformed an unprecedented destructive force into the expectation of a world without limits … Pause, just for a moment, to consider the intoxicating rush of this enterprise, the creative energy of making things that work on this kind of scale, of believing that people could finally shape reality rather than merely submit to it.”
Plowshare recasts the military legacy of nuclear explosions, making them weapons not against other humans but against the real enemy: nature. ‘Man’ reshaping “the land in dimensions never before possible … as he struggles against the geography nature has pitted against him.” Want to tear more wealth from deep time and deep rock? To blast new canals between oceans? Nuclear bangs are the way to go. When it comes to nature, war is peace.
Marine Animal Satellite Tags
Nils Hanwahr offers our gaze a much more benign technology — one that’s ubiquitous in our TV wildlife shows, refashioning our understanding of what and where ‘wildlife’ is, how it’s faring across the planet. Satellite tags are invaluable for the data they provide on animals in seas, land and air, logging continuous intelligence on their position, behaviour and environment. Bringing us closer to nature, though a nature wholly mediated through that technology, and living in the imagination rather than experience. And what of the tagged animals?
“Tagging a marine animal with a high-tech device endows the creature with a kind of agency that could only arise in the Anthropocene … Agency only registers on our human scale by leaving a trace and in the twenty-first century that means registering life forms and environments as digital data. We incorporate remote environments into our digital representations of nature … Onemight wonder if turning an animal into a data point does not itself entail an act of violent reduction into a digital infrastructure.”
Cryogenic Freezer Box
While some living beings are reduced to datapoints in digital infrastructures, other once-living beings become frozen species in DNA banks. Elizabeth Hennessy inspects our drive to preserve the world’s biodiversity in the face of our sixth mass-extinction event. “A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life.” It’s a ‘natural’ progression, as the “urge to collect has been integral to the production of Western knowledge of the natural world since the sixteenth century when Europeans brought home curiosities during an age of imperial exploration.” But this isn’t just about protecting knowledge (whose? for whom?); it’s also about asupposed insurance policy for the planet.
“Environmentalists position human agency as having a dual role in the Anthropocene — both culprit of environmental destruction and potential saviour of lost life. Cryogenic freezer boxes encapsulate both regret for biodiversity loss and faith in science and technology to deliver life from the shambles of massive environmental crisis.”
Hennessy is not the only Future Remains contributor to invoke, with irony, the words of arch techno-optimist Stewart Brand, that “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” But, she asks:
“Who gets to ‘play god’? Faced with climate change, rising oceans, and other Anthropocene crises, how do these ‘gods’ choose who, or what, should be saved? And if scientists in elite laboratories were able to revive extinct species, where in the world would these animals belong once they left the safe haven of the archive?”
The Monkey Wrench
Daegan Miller’s contribution is an emblem of mass labour in the hands of the individual Anthropocene worker. In his hands, the humble monkey wrench becomes a tool to “get a grip on the world.”
“Once used everywhere lithe human muscle struggled against iron intransigence, the monkey wrench had a hand in building the entire towering, now tottering mechanical skeleton of the industrialised, modern world. [It] now allows us … to consider inequality — whose labour built the Anthropocene? Whose labour laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shovelled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? … And held once again in a warm human hand, the wrench confronts us: who profited from its work, and who has paid the costs?”
The Germantown Calico Quilt
Bethany Wiggins chooses a commemorative item from 1820s Pennsylvania: a cotton quilt stitched to record both the image of a French hero of America’s revolution against the British, and the treaty with the Native Americans that founded Philadelphia. If revolutionary wars are sudden (if long-developing) acts of violence, the longer processes of migration, colonialism and control of nature and culture are slow, hidden expressions of the same violent forces.
“Such disasters’ creep can be hard to perceive; their toll spans generations and continents. On a local, human scale, they can be difficult to witness … To make Anthropocene violence legible requires a setting simultaneously local and global, and it urges a historical frame extending at least to 1492. But the temporality of the Anthropocene is not only slow. It is also fast, and its pace is always accelerating … The story of the Anthropocene is thus double both temporally and geographically. Its places are always dislocated, at once local and global; its times are ever out of joint, both fast and slow.”
The quilt’s “layers recall geologic strata” and its panels display “the primal scene of the Anthropocene: fast three-masted sailing ships … hint at the new maritime technologies that moved humans and other animal species, plants, and manufactures across the Atlantic world and across the globe.” But, in recasting Columbus in the guise of the virtuous Quaker John Penn, the quilt erases those technologies that don’t suit its narrative: the guns and the slave economy.
Davies Creek Road painting
Robert Emmett senses that “we need emotionally powerful works of art that reorganise our structures of feeling around these transformations in environment and society.” And part of that need is to counter the momentum of Anthropocene narrative that assume continued, planned and perfected ideologies of human mastery. Emmett selects Trish Carroll and Mandy Martin’s painting, Davies Creek Road, as one counter to a ‘Big Dam Theory of Global Eco-Modernity.’
“The storied landscape in Carroll and Martin’s canvas, layered over with the figure of the goanna lizard in X-ray style, offers texture and meaning where the Australian government sees only a blank slate for a proposed dam. Before the Anthropocene becomes a single perspective, story, or agenda, it can still be used to name a raft of forces that resists a simple ending.”
As with the other objects in this volume, Davies Creek Road can help us to “steer the conversation in different directions [to] make a better environmental future from the predicaments of being just humans…”
Sverker Sörlin’s object comes with its own poetic reflection. Drawing on the ‘mirror test’ in psychology — “a check of whether you have an idea of who you are or, perhaps, that you are at all” — Sörlin suggests the Anthropocene as the ultimate, species-level mirror test. As individuals, humans pass the test at around eighteen months, and we know that elephants, apes, magpies and some other animals also recognise themselves as selves.
“Seeing ourselves in the Anthropocene mirror we stand a slightly different test. Not only: do I realise that I am there? But: do I realise that I am part of something larger? Do I figure what this larger something might be?”
The mirror in the exhibition is both physical object — at once the everyday experience of watching yourself and making an exhibit of yourself — and metaphor; the poem and video reflect on “human comedy, showing a few members, a small fragment of the collective Anthropos that the Anthropocene presupposes.” Together, these mirror acts shatter both individualising and globalising narratives of who we are, what we’re engaged in and how this age unfolds. “This is not just one world where a separate humanity impacts on everything nonhuman but a world of increasing entanglements across scales and species and forms of being in the world and thus a world of multiple becomings.”
The mirror is a choice. Of surface, of now and just now. Of what is underneath, how we became us, how we became insides, too. How we became divided already in the Pleistocene.
As Elizabeth Hennessy contemplates with her cryogenic freezer box, “the task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction …
“Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complicated task: recognising the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending the limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”
Daegan Miller reminds us that the Anthropocene may be the end of many things. It should be “the end of a distinctly human past plotted against a static, inert natural world … But perhaps this is a good thing, for the earth, it bears repeating, is not in our hands; only our tools are. And tools are nothing if not the possibilities of a new future made material.”
Robert Emmett suggests that each of us might construct our own Anthropocene cabinets of curiosities: “perhaps do so in communities as ‘little free libraries,’ where the libraries also contain seeds, specimens, and directions for reanimating forms of extinct life.” Might they also be “an aesthetic survival kit, potent dream of a shareable planetary society that prevented numbness to loss?”
Sverker Sorlin’s own question, “Who are the mirrored ones?” is central to the Anthropocene: to how we understand and name it, how we recognise the ‘we’ that it names, how each person owns and experiences it, albeit differently and with different expectations of us. Part of the power that objects have is the power to serve as ‘boundary objects’: things which have ‘plasticity’, holding different features and meanings for different people but retaining enough common identity that they can help broker conversations, holding disparate groups together for deliberations of where and how to proceed.
And the curation of objects amplifies this power, modifies it. As Libby Robins says of the collective, “They stack and array, they align and contrast. Each object is a counterpoint to other objects, in conversations and contradistinction. Objects in museums have always carried stories across generations and places, drawing out memories of other times.”
And memories of other futures? We mirrored ones need to look, to talk and act, to reflect that the Anthropocene, the Age of the More-than-Human, is still open for multiple stories. Stories of change.
“The mirror is a test of hope.”
Find out more
Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett, is published by theUniversity of Chicago Press(2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work attimflach.com.
You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’sSnargeand Jared Farmer’sTechnofossil.
And you can explore all 27 of the objects that ClimateCultures Members have contributed so far to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects in ourCurious Mindssection. I’ve also posted a list of these tomy small blog.
Researcher and writer Wallace Heim recently completed ‘the sea cannot be depleted’, her online project exploring the military exploitation of the Solway Firth. Wallace shares her reflections on the inspiration behind this powerful project and her creative process.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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