We welcome back artist Robynne Limoges, whose series of photographs and short essay Black Haiku: Poems for Dark Times featured on ClimateCultures in March 2018. Here, with Rock Pools in the Desert, Robynne returns with a series of evocative abstract images that reflect her feelings on the critical issue of water scarcity.
approximate Reading Time: 3minutes
The scientists, researchers and scholars who are part of ClimateCultures will be able to provide more up-to-date statistics than I am able to on the subject of the paucity of water around the world and the state of the world’s deserts.
But I will introduce my photographic series, called Rock Pools in the Desert, by sharing a few (most likely already out-of-date) statistics from Lifewater, for World Water Day 2018, elucidating a few of their 10 Facts About the Water Crisis:
844 million people live without access to clean water. This corresponds to approximately one in ten people on Earth, or approximately twice the population of the United States.
More people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war.
One in three people — 2.4 billion — lack access to a toilet.
Water-borne diseases kill more children under the age of five than malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined.
In developing countries, as much as 80% of illnesses are directly linked to poor water and sanitary conditions.
Women and girls spend up to six hours every day walking to get water for their families, water that can often make them sick (in Africa and Asia, the average walk to collect water is 3.7 miles, every day).
443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases.
Time spent gathering water around the world translates to $24 billion in lost economic benefits, furthering the cycle of poverty.
The ever-increasing demand for water makes it a frontline issue for survival.
There are many more statistics available. The deterioration of our water supplies and the increasing deserts that will follow are also addressed by the University of Maryland. In their April 2018 report, they show that the Sahara Desert has become 10 per cent larger (10 per cent!) in the past century.
I sincerely hope that my deep concerns for the state of the physical world — and for the lack of productive leadership shown around the world to save our planet, its people, its wildlife and marine life — are shared by increasing numbers of organisations and individuals who possess the ability and funding to save our future.Thus far, I have only proof of the opposite.
And so, as I did in Black Haiku: Poems for Dark Times, in this submission Rock Pools in the Desert, I am interpreting my own feelings through a series of metaphorical images. The series came about in a somewhat interesting way, to me at least.I found myself standing in front of a scratched, hammered stainless steel sink. To the right of me was a window onto the sea. As I looked at the dried droplets while I was washing my hands, I thought, ‘yes, this is it.This is the last bowl of water I will have at my disposal, the last source of water’.I stared at it so hard that I began to focus on the change in light from the out-of-doors and how it affected the surface, the water and the scratches. I returned to that sink many times, at different times of day and photographed it at different angles over time. I actually became a bit obsessed by its changing nature.
I offer you just six of the 70-plus images I took of one single object that became for me the entire subject of water.
Rock Pools in the Desert
NB: Click on the image to enter slideshow and view full size.
Lifewater is a Christian clean water organisation that, for more than 40 years, has been bringing clean water, improved health, and hope to vulnerable women and children living in extreme poverty. Their Water Crisis factsheet – which includes 10 Facts About the Water Crisis and the sources of the statistics, can be downloaded here.
World Water Day – 22nd March every year – is about focusing attention on the importance of water. The theme for World Water Day 2018 was ‘Nature for Water’ – exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.
The University of Maryland research on the expansion of the Sahara desert was reported in Science Daily (29/3/18): “The researchers concluded that … natural climate cycles accounted for about two-thirds of the total observed expansion of the Sahara. The remaining one-third can be attributed to climate change, but the authors note that longer climate records that extend across several climate cycles are needed to reach more definitive conclusions.”
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: 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. 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
It's a joy to welcome back Julien Masson, a visual artist who works with technology to produce digital art that questions our relationships with both technology and the natural world. Here, Julien describes his recent residency in the New Forest, an environment that juxtaposes natural and human worlds; and his choice of a physical paint medium to help bring distance from the digital realm that itself can distance us from the natural.
I was delighted to be invited by an art agency based in Hampshire for their residency project in 2018. Every year they invite an artist and provide them with a space for two weeks and the opportunity to produce art in the beautiful surroundings of the New Forest. It was going to be a challenge to adjust to new working spaces and produce artwork in such a short time but I thought it would offer a good opportunity to explore the area and really concentrate on an art project without distractions.
Last year I worked on a project with the New Forest heritage department and produced a series of digital art works inspired by the geology, the streams and the flora of the area to create rich multilayered images based on LIDAR captures (images used to survey the geology and analyse what lies underneath vegetation). I was able to exhibit examples of that work at the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst, such as Shades of the Land:
For my residency this year, based in a New Forest forge, I was given free reign to work on a self-initiated project. The manager of the forge until very recently was the director of a local art gallery and so there was an interest to help support artists through this residency, but they didn’t expect us to produce work linked to their activities — although it is a fascinating space.
I was happy to rise to the challenge and try to produce a series of works during the two weeks of the residency.
Mapping new meaning
Our digital culture brings us into a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the technology we rely on to drive it. I am interested in the ways we rely more and more on technology to record and survey our environment, and how this over-reliance is possibly misplaced. Through the numeric lens of digital devices that have a direct impact on how we perceive the world, spaces, objects and people are all analysed in the same manner — reduced to datasets that can be disassembled and reassembled at will. My works often consist of a dynamic mass of marks echoing digital networks and our complex interconnected world; they criss-cross the surface of the paintings like a giant mind map generating new meaning.
I explore the possibilities that digital tools offer us to create alternative realities and virtual simulations that ultimately allow us to further our knowledge. How does the virtual world affect our real, physical experience? What consequences will the digitalisation of our experiences bring? In these new pieces the layers of data points recreate the geological contours of the region. Each geological layer is superimposed onto another, and in the same way I superimposed strips of paint to recreate the layered stratas of the land…
One of the reasons why I have been working in a physical paint medium rather than producing purely digital artwork is that working in paint and pastels allows me that freedom and distance from my subject. By using paint I am a step removed from technology, I can have more a more critical look at it. I admire the digital virtual but also I like to imbue it with all that is chaotic and unpredictable with the physicality of painting.
A pixelised reality
My technique is unapologetically experimental. I paint, slice and collage painted surfaces, echoing the remixing of images in photoshop or the superimposed layers of photos in computer graphics software. There is a certain destructive activity in the way I work, as fractured formations of paint emerge from this process. I believe this illustrates the dislocated sense of reality we are subject to in this day and age.
The studio space was comfortable and bright, on the top floor of the forge, and I also had the privilege of working alongside Peter Corr there, a very talented artist. It was fascinating seeing the work progress during the two weeks. We were made to feel very welcome by the forge manager on the ground floor; it was a real hive of activity and we felt really inspired by the work they produce there.
The journey in and out of the studio offered an interesting progression through the industrial landscape of Southampton Docks to the forest at Ashurst… Spring sunshine appeared and we witnessed a real explosion of colours, as the foliage really started to fill the tree canopy… The impact on my work was immediate and I shifted my palette from a rather restrained selection into a veritable kaleidoscope array of glitches. These glitches — unexpected results or malfunctions, especially occurring with digital devices — often manifest themselves through a faulty interaction with digital technology, and offer a sort of distorted pixelized reality. I spent several days gathering images of the surroundings with my digital camera. I often manipulate the images to generate interesting and unexpected arrays of colour, which I use as inspiration for my works.
I wanted to illustrate this fractured vision of Nature that we sometimes have. The tessellated technique I used on these works echoes the kaleidoscopic view we often have of the world through the use of digital technology. Our perception becomes compressed and pixelated, often in constant motion; it seems incomplete yet it has a certain beauty too. I also arc back to painterly techniques used by the Vorticists and the Futurists. Similar use of dynamic strokes of colour can be found in my work.
The intense use of the colour green was definitely in response to the new leaves that appeared in the last couple of weeks there. The tessera of paint also echo the foliage of the trees and the movement of their leaves in the wind. Geology is also present, as the stacks of colours reminds me of the strata of different soils.
No matter how aesthetically oriented my work is it is undeniable that I also want to treat the subject of eco-responsibility in my work. Technology allows us to analyse and study our environment so we can understand it better but it has the effect of distancing us from it. From this abstracted digital space we can experience the world in the safety of our own virtual shells, choosing to be blissfully unaware of the impact our activities are having on our environment.
I often mix traditional materials such as paint and pigment with found manmade materials: metallic foil, electric wires and plastics. My use of recycled materials is also a comment on our relationship with the natural environment and how we are truly living in a geological age dominated by our own activity. I included some flexes of copper and metallic material throughout the works as a reminder of human activity in the landscape and also a nod to the activity at the forge where the studio is based. To me, the layering of marks, materials and imagery during my creative process is in many ways akin to the stratification of meaning, of human activities and histories.
In this series I was particularly interested in using the circular frame because of its scientific connotation. I am thinking of petri dishes or microscopic images; this series of works represent almost a series of individual experiments in shape and colour, each forming its own world, its own microcosm. Finally I am planning to display these works as a series: carefully arranging them almost as a comparative study.
The residency took place in a studio on the top floor of a forge, and this industrial space was at odds with the idyllic view of the area. However I felt this was very appropriate considering my interests in the sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition of a manmade landscape and a wild landscape. The New Forest itself is a human creation, managed for centuries to exploit its various resources.
The LGV Residency “accommodating an artist in the New Forest National Park for the development of their creative practice” is a scheme provided by Little Van Gogh, an agency that delivers programmes and projects that help organisations to support and promote emerging artists, “be it through our workplace art exhibitions or the commissioning and purchase of original fine art.”
A tondo (plural: tondi or tondos) — Wikipedia tells me — “is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art, either a painting or a sculpture. The word derives from the Italian rotondo, ’round.'”
The New Forest was created by King William I in 1079 as his royal hunting park following the Norman Conquest; the ‘new’ forest became one of England’s National Parks in 2005. The New Forest National Park Authority is the planning authority, while the Verderers of the New Forest – the commoners whose rights are protected by statutes – manage many of the traditional agricultural practices in the area.
LIDAR — Wikipedia again — is a surveying technique for 3D laser scanning for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’, which “measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representations of the target.” At the website of the Verderers of the New Forest High Level Stewardship Scheme, you can see two interesting films of the technique being used in the New Forest to understand more about the human and natural characteristics of the area; and there is more in this blog from the New Forest NPA heritage section.
In just a couple of weeks, the call for proposals for art.earth's new creative symposium will close and the programme for this three day November event will begin to take shape: 'Adorning our new biosphere: how to love the postcarbon world.' Here, I offer my take on what's being asked of artists and others - and invite ClimateCultures Members and followers to take part.
In a social and economic landscape where the ‘state of the art’ — technologically and politically — for supposedly environment-friendly energy solutions may be literally “a scar on a loved landscape, as much as the causes and impacts of climate change are a scar on our psyches and consciences”, what is the role of the artist in bringing a more ecologically attuned sense to moving us away from the industrial model that has got us into this predicament? Can art, creativity, imagination actually help us to break free of our seemingly unbreakable pattern of thought? Something somehow in the spirit of the provocation Albert Einstein is supposed to have offered: “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
Learning to love
This is my reading of the central question behind art.earth’s call for proposals for its November symposium, Adorning our new biosphere: how to love the postcarbon world. That title reads as a startling proposition; we’ve become so used to a world where the very word ‘biosphere’ seems to suggest something at peril from humanity that the notion that we — our species, our own lives — might somehow adorn it could be a form of heresy. In the conventional spectrum of environmental consciousness, at either extreme you either fall into the camp where technology and the better angels of Homo economicus will ‘save the world’, and the inevitable compromises that have to be made are simply the cost of progress; or the camp where human intervention is so poisonous that the imperative must be to find ways to withdraw more or less gracefully from ‘nature’ and let it advance once more. In the middle lie many flavours of environmentalism, and then of course there are all the positions which pay little or no attention to the crises, or attack the very idea of crisis at all. So, what is this ‘adorning’, a word that seems almost medieval? How can it apply to the ‘modern’ world of science, politics, technology?
And it is mediaeval — a Middle English word anyway, from Old French and Latin. ‘To dress’, to adorn is to add beauty to, enhance, or make more pleasing: a dangerous word perhaps for humans to deploy within the natural world, in this day and age? But the clue, of course, is in the subtitle that art.earth and its partners — Plymouth University’s Sustainable Earth Institute and Ulsan National Institute of Science & Technology’s Science Walden — have chosen for the event. Learning to love. But to love what?
“In learning to love the postcarbon world, we must first learn to love and care for the carbon-dominated world we are attempting to heal,” the call suggests. It’s a moral proposition, but also a pragmatic one; it’s our relationship with(in) the environment that we need to change if we’re to change the outcome.
Love in the post carbon world — love for the post carbon world, now — is to love the world in a way that will help shape it to be the best we can imagine (or in its direction at least) and to recognise that, as the quote from writer William Gibson has it, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The post carbon world too is already here, but if it’s to be better realised, better distributed, in a better relationship with itself then we must care also for the carbon world — the here and now — and thereby change it. That is part of the frame for this event.
At the 2014 Weatherfronts climate change conference for writers, author Jay Griffiths quoted a 1944 poem by Alun Lewis, In Hospital: Poona. Near the end of the Second World War, the poet lay in a hospital bed in India where he was stationed, a third of a world away from his lover back in Wales:
Last night I did not fight for sleepBut lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.And sixty degrees of longitude besideVanished as though a swan in ecstasyHad spanned the distance from your sleeping side.And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care ...
In Hospital: Poona, Alun Lewis
The ‘parish of my care’ — and your own parish will be personal to you, each one different but overlapping, intermingled — Jay suggested is the ambit of what we can each best achieve, but can encompass the wider world we have ambitions to work for.
“What we have done to our climate, to our planet, lies at the heart of the political and social problems we face,” the art.earth call continues. “We seem incapable of addressing this wicked problem partly because we tend to look inward rather than outward, because we are careless rather than caring.”
What good is art, anyway?
You will have your own answers to that question. In a 2017 piece for the Tate website, Climate Change: can artists have any influence, novelist J M Ledgard asserted that one reason why the answer to this question must be ‘Yes’ is “there are not many alternatives to seeing intensely. The scope of the ruination is so grave and fast it is difficult for the polity to conceive of. Economists, philosophers and neuroscientists have all demonstrated that humans have a limited capacity to project themselves into the future. But art can move effortlessly outside of time and space, highlighting the absurdity of naming the year 2017 on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. Our classical ancestors were locked to land and sky by miasmas, storms, portents, stars, solstices, harvests. Art … various and ambitious … can bring us back to that place. That is how art will inform the debate.”
And, as the art.earth call suggests, “Surely the artist’s ability to stir up and question societal thinking, challenge preconceptions, and assert new forms of beauty and aesthetic reasoning must play a role … So this is a call to action for artists, designers, engineers. ecologists, policy-makers and other thinkers to turn their attention to a world in need of a change of argument, one that can adorn our new biosphere not only with aesthetic pleasure but with a beauty of equality and social equity.”
“We need a new conversation: welcome to our new biosphere.”
I’ve experienced two art.earth events — 2016’s Feeding the Insatiable and last year’s In Other Tongues — and am looking forward to my third, Liquidscapes, just a couple of weeks from now. Each time, a wonderfully eclectic but cohesive programme of speakers and workshop leaders has been matched with many thoughtful and stimulating personal encounters with a range of artists, scholars and activists of many kinds. Having helped organise several TippingPoint events in the previous few years, discovering art.earth at just the time that that involvement was drawing to a close was very fortunate timing for me; and all my TippingPoint and art.earth experiences have been highly formative in my own thinking and work, not least in deciding to set up ClimateCultures last year.
It’s a privilege to spend three days in the company of so many creative and curious minds, and to soak in the ideas and possibilities in the environs of the Dartington estate just outside Totnes. So, for me, it’s a double privilege to have been invited to be part of the organising committee for Adorning our new Biosphere. I can’t wait to see the programme that emerges from all the ideas that this latest call stimulates. I hope that all ClimateCultures Members and readers of this site will head straight to the full text of the call and submit a proposal of your own or encourage others to do so.
The invitation is for “any ideas that inspire you and which you think may have a place during this event … We would particularly welcome proposals from artists, writers and other makers as well as panels or interviews or other discursive formats. Please bear in mind that the event takes place in a particular environment: Dartington is a 900-acre mixed estate that includes modern and ancient woodland, riverside with swimming, open pasture, formal gardens, and other outdoor sites where people can meet and work in groups. We particular encourage proposals that take advantage of this context.”
Find out more
You can read Alun Lewis’ In Hospital: Poona in full at Seren Books blog, among many other sites, and you can listen to Jay Griffith’s reading of it as part of her participation in the writers’ panel at TippingPoint’s Weatherfronts 2014 conference at the Free Word Centre. Jay’s contributions start at 45 minutes in, and the previous speakers – Ruth Padel, Maggie Gee and Gregory Norminton are all well worth hearing too.
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.
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.
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.’
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 Feature, Sarah 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.”