Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Anticipatory history, a book that explores the possibilities for ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in places to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and we might shape.
2,220 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
A copy of Anticipatory history goes to Jennifer Leach for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust — on ‘Storying adaptation’ — to the network’s final symposium.
Here, I want to introduce Anticipatory history the book — as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.
Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question — what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” — found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months — typically up to half the project lifetime — coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’.
It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:
“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”
At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is ‘anticipatory history’?
The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.
“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”
As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) — or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”
Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220-year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features.
With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,
“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”
‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:
“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon
“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White
The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches — or even a naïve combination of all three — in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”
“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”
How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.
“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”
So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding (Acclimatisation, Coastal squeeze, Entropy, Equilibrium, Managed realignment, Monitoring) to the deceptively simple (Birds, Ebb and flood, Living landscapes, Memory, Museum, Place, Rhododendron, Tides, Woods) via the playful or provocative (Besanded, Dream-map, Liminal zone, Palliative curation, Rewilding, Story-radar, Unfarming, Zone of exclusion).
You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles — or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.
The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.
In a later post, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore.
Find out more
You can read a response to this review from environmental artist Linda Gordon, illustrated with a recent example of her ephemeral art.
Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.
The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.
The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…
Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking..."One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews William Golding’s The Inheritors, an essential reimagining of a key transition for humanity, our place as inheritors of a world that lives around and inside us, and of separation of culture from nature.
2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
A copy of the novel goes to Julien Masson for his contributionto A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
In his 1955 classic, The Inheritors, William Golding famously reimagined the lost world of the Neanderthals at the moment when the very last of them were losing it. His family of hominids — the People — encounter the incoming Homo sapiens — the New People — and only bitter, unprecedented experience can tell them what this will mean.
Almost the entire novel is experienced through the eyes and other senses of Lok, one of the family group making the seasonal journey inland from their winter coastal grounds to the forested uplands. Here, they shelter in a rocky gap in the forest: an ancestral cave, barely more than a recess in the cliff terrace overlooking a glacier-fed river, with its mystery-giving ice field above and deadly waterfall below.
Golding worried that his portrayal of Neanderthals wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny. “I haven’t done any research for the book at all,” he warned his editor, “just brooded over what I know myself.” His editor replied that any expert’s suggestions “would be the wrong sort” and published the book as it stood. A later essay by Golding’s daughter Judy – marking the 60th anniversary of the novel – cast light on just what it was that the author had been brooding over:
‘Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of the second world war. Postwar austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting. Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (“the people”) and the group of Homo sapiens (“the New People”). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.’
Judy Golding claims that her father’s sense of guilt – “not only over the people he himself had killed … but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war” was also a kind of hunger, one that consumes humanity.
Rereading The Inheritors after 25 years, I was surprised at first by the extent to which it makes for quite hard reading. It’s beautifully written, as I remember with all his novels I’d read in my twenties; but I’d forgotten just how Golding used the restrictions of language to convey the world through the thought-images of our distant cousins – distant in time, and also in consciousness. Through the eyes of Lok, his people’s social and natural world (with no distinction possible between these aspects of being and belonging) is rendered as timelessly familiar to him and his family, while unfamiliar to us. The People’s lives are practically tool-free – every need of a sick elder for a drink means a trip by someone down to the river to fetch water that has to be cupped in their hands all the way back up to the cave. Every step and act is dictated by the need to eat, drink, shelter and avoid the predatory hyenas and cats. Our reading of their life is difficult, as we struggle at times to make out what it is that Lok and the others are seeing. When Lok spies the New People drinking water as if it is being given to them by “a wobbly animal” that one of them holds under her arm, and which goes flat and empty when she accidentally drops it on the ground, he doesn’t grasp that they’ve used an animal skin as a container, and we don’t see at first that this is what he has witnessed.
Much of what Lok witnesses makes sense to us (and, too late, to him) in retrospect, and also through the reactions of his mate, Fa. She seems to grasp more about these strange new arrivals – of their darker side, especially. When Lok persists in not understanding what has become of their daughter, Fa cannot explain (or bring herself to) but her dumbfounded reactions to his ignorance are moments of heart-breaking tragedy, as we come to apprehend something that is never shown, stated or explained. This truth about the New People – us – is not explicable, because it is not comprehensible. Golding hides “the darkest event in the book” from us, just as Fa hides it from Lok as they huddle together in a treetop looking down on the drunken, violent rituals of the famished humans after their unsuccessful hunting trip.
Golding gave his Neanderthals basic language, which they use sparingly, but a rich sensory and imaginal understanding of their world. Much of their communication takes place in the sharing of pictures, a form of telepathy that occasionally helps to transfer novel ideas from person to person. Lacking a strong sense of past or future, their eternal present is a tragic illusion for the People; only we know what is coming and what the changes will mean — for them, and for us.
It may be unhelpful to fixate on the People as Neanderthals – and therefore to worry about the accuracy of Golding’s portrayal of them. Clearly, the story acts as a recasting of the Biblical Fall. A central symbol in the novel is the waterfall. Always present as an image of force and danger for the forest dwellers, it plays a literal role in their ending. But it’s also a source of realisation for Lok in its new role as metaphor, when he starts to see things through that novel form of understanding: one thing in the guise of another. It’s this transition from proto- to fully human — from imagining to rationalising, inhabiting to remaking — that marks our self-exile from the Eden of a world that lives around and inside us, the inheritors.
Nothing stands against them
Fa goes missing after a clash with the incomers and, for the first time in his life – and in his picture of the life of his people – Lok is alone in the forest. He can hear the sounds and shouts of the New People in the distance, as they cut their way through the trees to travel uphill with the hollow logs they have used to cross the river and which they are taking with them into the interior. The noise diminishes:
‘He could hear no more than the voice of the old man when it rose in command or fury. Down here where the forest changed to marsh and the sky opened over bushes, straggling willow and water, there was no other sign of their passage. The woodpigeons talked, preoccupied with their mating; nothing was changed … All things profited and thrived in a warm windlessness.’
But Lok is now able to contemplate this seemingly unchanged scene with “a new head”, knowing now that appearances are deceptive; in fact everything has changed, thanks to the newcomers’ violent nature. His own change includes the ability to see likenesses he’s never been conscious of before.
‘The new head knew that certain things were gone and done with like a wave of the sea. It knew that the misery must be embraced painfully as a man might hug thorns to him and it sought to comprehend the new people from whom all the changes came … He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it … Now, in a convulsion of the understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption … they had emptied the gap of its people with little more than a turn of their hands.
“They are like the river and the fall, they are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.”‘
Whatever the author’s intention in casting the pre-Fall people as simple, loving and unaggressive scavenger-gatherers (they never kill animals for food but do take kills discarded by predators, for which “there is no blame”), inseparable from their environment, while the New People hunt with weapons, fight among themselves and walk in fear through the forest, Golding also showed their common humanity. Both groups’ lives are centred on family, emotional understanding of their community and a need for security. This tension between commonality and ‘Othering’ must have had great resonance in a world torn open by total war, death camp genocides, forced retreat from imperial self-delusions of ‘manifest destiny’ and mounting Cold War fears of apocalypse. The resonance should be even greater for us, in the Anthropocene – a new age for the new people – where these collective insanities shapeshift and accelerate into even greater forms.
Perhaps the old people here are more a mark of our lost connection with the more-than-human world than of the origins of our species’ apparent drive to exterminate (merely) its own competing sub-cultures. With their red hair and mode of walking bent forward, Golding’s ‘Neanderthals’ perhaps seem more like orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay); their gentleness and too-late understanding of what the New People are capable of chimes with a picture of how far Homo sapiens is prepared to go to cut itself out of the web of life by cutting down the web itself.
Fa listens patiently to Lok’s assertion that their daughter is still with her kidnappers, carried off with the canoes now being rolled uphill on felled tree trunks:
‘Fa looked mournfully at his face. She pointed to a smear on the smoothed earth that had been a slug.
“They have gone over us like a hollow log. They are like a winter.”‘
The inheritors upstream
Once the novel is done with the story of the people of the forest, the final chapter is for the inheritors, and we see the world through their eyes. They are paddling upstream, free of the forest that they feared for its natural perils and its red-haired devils. The protagonist now is Tuami, a hunter and a rival of the old man who leads them as shaman. Also with them in their boats, alongside their passions, superstitions and cleverness with thoughts and tools, lies a baby – another captive from the forest people. The red-haired devil-boy, looked on with mixed amusement and repulsion by the inheritors, is protected by the dominant but childless woman of the group. Tuami watches the comical play of the adoptive mother and infant and feels the inspiration he has been lacking for the ivory knife handle he is shaping.
‘The sun shone on the [woman’s] head and the [baby’s] rump and quite suddenly everything was all right again and the sands had sunk back to the bottom of the pool. The rump and the head fitted each other and made a shape you could feel with your hands. They were waiting in the rough ivory of the knife-haft that was so much more important than the blade. They were an answer, the frightened, angry love of the woman and the ridiculous, intimidating rump that was wagging at her head, they were a password.’
A password to where? To a distant future where part of our inheritance is the result of an interbreeding between one branch of humanity and another — between two aspects of humanity — and maybe some hope for a tempering of the fearful and violent separation of culture from nature?
Find out more
Judy Golding’s article in the Guardian marking the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication offers many insights into the writing of her father’s novel, and the inspiration he took from his own family in portraying the family of forest people.
Novelist Penelope Lively’s rereading of the novel makes the connection between the book and the then recent discovery of the prehistoric art of the Lascaux cave painting which inspired the novel’s original cover. “The dustjacket has that leaping stag figure from the walls of the Lascaux cave — half human, half animal – which places it fair and square within the context of its inspiration. It is hard to realise now the effect that the discovery of the Lascaux paintings had in the post-war period: those images haunted the imagination of a generation. For some, like Golding, it was the implications of the images and their setting; for others, it was the extraordinary sophistication and perception of the paintings themselves.” (You can read more about Lascaux, its discovery and art, in this entry by Emma Groeneveld in the Ancient History Encyclopedia).
This blog by science writer James Kingsland at Plastic Brain points out some of the problems with Golding’s novel as a literal representation of the Neanderthals (but its truthfulness in the broad sweep) – and echoes a feeling that reading Lok and Fa as more distant primate relatives could be helpful.
Questioning Origins? Space for creative thinking..."Where does being human begin for you - whether in a life, within the web of life, or in deep time? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
Filmmakers Sarah Thomas and Jon Randall share a conversation about the ideas, stories and creative processes behind their film exploring Óshlið, an abandoned road in Iceland — accompanied by a slideshow of their images from this changing place.
270 words: estimated reading time 1 minute + 26 minutes audio + 3 minutes gallery + 2 minutes video
Our film represents a journey along Óshlið, an abandoned coastal road which is considered to be one of the most dangerous, and beautiful, in Iceland. Following the construction of a mountain tunnel in 2010, the road was closed and is now in the process of being rapidly reclaimed by both the mountain and the sea. The film delves into the stories of this road and its relationships with the people who maintained, travelled and died upon Óshlið. Through these voices, it reflects upon a post-human landscape and the nature of mortality.
The title embodies the topographical and compound nature of this film. Óshlið is an Icelandic word comprised of ós (river mouth) and hlið (slope). Óshlið is both the name of the road, and the place – from which it came and to which it will return.
To listen to our conversation, choose the ‘Listen in browser’ option rather than SoundCloud, so you can view the accompanying slideshow below.
Questioning Loss? Space for creative thinking..."What do our experiences of loss - of place, objects, relationships - mean for our understanding of environmental or climate change? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
Artist Julien Masson explores memory, material transience and meaning in his an intriguing response to our ClimateCultures challenge to share three objects with personal significance and illustrate the past, present and future of the emerging ‘Age of Human’.
670 words: estimated reading time 2.5 minutes
The challenge: the Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
When worlds collide…
The first object I selected is an amalgam of objects that were given to me in the past. This 3D collage of disparate elements that I would compare to a melange of old memories that have merged into a sort of mnemonic chimera. The use of contrasting material such as mineral and the manmade industrial metal alludes to the clash of the natural world and the manmade activity.
A disposable present
The ubiquitous battery has a limited life span and in many ways symbolises the transience of our contemporary lives… the battery is a container, a vessel to convey energy to devices. In this case, a camera. When its power is spent, it is rendered useless and is disposed of in landfills or recycled. Its shape is simple and functional and I often wonder at the technical codes on these objects. Their meaning is lost to me and they might as well be some long lost cabalistic language.
Offered up to the future
The third object represents our future. My selection suggests a dystopian vision of the future, where virtual experiences replace our spirituality. What will future generation of archaeologists think of such a device in centuries to come? Out of meaning and out of network, maybe it is some sort of votive artefact? An empty shell for the virtual ghost of our times…
Find out more
You can see a short animation Julien has made, Funland: An Anthropocene amusement park, and more of his artworks at macuse.com and jfmasson.com
Each post that appears in the sequence of A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For his post, Julien receives a copy of William Golding’s classic novel, The Inheritors, “a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals and a frightening vision of the beginnings of a new age.”
Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking..."What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post."
At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.
Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question.
Poet Nancy Campbell, whose experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, reports on the UK tour of The Polar Tombola, which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages and the environment recorded in their vocabularies.
1,130 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes
When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.
UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.
The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.
Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in ‘remote’ locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.
My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.
A game of words
I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.
Hence The Polar Tombola –a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws its name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as ‘kagdleq’ (thunder), ‘karnalak’ (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).
To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.
Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.
It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of ‘war’ and ‘hate’) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word ‘kaggsuk’ (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.
While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.
Back to books
At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.
In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word ‘dissever’, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word ‘Coxsackie’, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.
Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.
The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.
You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”