Energetic – Exploring the past, present and future of energy

In June, I visited the Culture and Climate Change exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society in London. Here, I review Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energythe book of one of the projects on display there: Stories of Change.

approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes   


One of the benefits of attending the exhibition on Culture and Climate Change at the Royal Geographic Society at the end of June – even on one of those very hot and sticky summer days in  London – was to meet up again with many of the project members and participants in the Stories of Change project. The project launched in Oxford in September 2014, at one of the TippingPoint events I was fortunate to help organise: an incredibly energetic and creative couple of days in the rooms, chapel and lawns of Exeter College; and here, in the RGS exhibition room, the results of that project’s creativity were on display, alongside two other projects from many of the same partners: Earth in Vision, and Provisional Cities.

Professor Joe Smith, Stories of Change Principal Investigator, speaking at Culture and Climate Change, June 2018
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2018

As we viewed the photographs and panels and recalled some of the project highlights, a soundtrack of voices played in the background, the results of a commission by artist Vicky Long, who had taken the submissions to the Stories of Change competition My Friend Jules and reworked these stories of personal relationships with energy into a play for voices. My Friend Jules had been devised by games designer Ken Eklund as a way of breaking down the barriers of abstraction which otherwise make it hard for us to visualise energy and just how extraordinary has been our development as a society dependent on the technologies, infrastructures and spatial relationships of industrial and post-industrial energy networks. Part of that story of stories is told in Ken’s post for ClimateCultures in May 2017, The Anthropocene Writ Small: My Friend Jules; and story is the underlying web of meaning through which this four-year project has worked to bring together an impressive range of practices, disciplines, places, people and objects.

Our travels with energy

That June event also marked the launch of Energetic, the book from the Stories of Change project, and I have enjoyed my slow and thoughtful path through its pages. Illustrated throughout with the bright, warm photographs of Tim Mitchell and Gorm Ashurst, the book weaves together the different strands and locations of the project in an accessible and informative guide to the questions and excursions into what energy means for us now, how we have travelled with it over the centuries of the industrial revolutions, and what shapes it might take in the 21st century in a world of changing climate and ecologies. As well as accounts by many of the team members and community participants, the book features work by a good number of the artists who took part in the project.

Nick Drake’s poem Chronicles of the Incandescent Lightbulb offers an effective frame for our reflections on our relationships with the immaterial essence of energy, embodied here in the material (but usually no-less invisible) convenience that is our instant gratification of holding back the dark:

You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark.

From a heartbeat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our interchangeable glass skulls;
to shine at your command.

Energetic editors Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk explain how the book — effectively a catalogue for a conceptual exhibition that by happy chance then did become a physical exhibition for a few weeks — “gathers insights from across this work … a representative sample of the creative writing, songs, photos and portraits, interviews, short films, performances and museum and festival events that we co-produced in collaboration with our community, creative, and research partners.” And that broad programme of work was partly inspired by the mid-20th-century Mass Observation movement, which recorded stories of change through the voices of ordinary people and communities. “Their innovative approach to valuing and supporting lay social researchers; their ground-breaking application of arts, social sciences, and media to the goals of social change; and their novel use of documentary tools were touchstones for this project.”

Playing with energetic utopias

Among the strands of creative research, therefore, a Peer Outreach Team of young people who face “a range of barriers to participation in mainstream education, employment, and training” were commissioned to gather the opinions of others and use a range of creative participatory activities, with the aim of avoiding what can be a “‘dry’ interaction” between academics and participants. And, as team member Bradon Smith recalls, this was complemented by further creative interventions in the guise of an energy policy game devised by participatory theatre-makers fanSHEN:

“A variation on the game started from the aim of creating an energy utopia … the playful tone and physical modelling element promoted speculative, imaginative and sometimes absurd suggestions, opening up space to consider afresh the challenges that energy policy faces … The task is to imagine a desired future, and identify the narrative that leads us there. All these are forms of storytelling in a speculate mode… Narratives of the future allow readers or listeners to imagine the present as history, encouraging the possibility of thinking differently about things we do not normally question.”

Whether engaged in the speculative future or the grounded here-and-now, imagination is a strong force for engaging with the world and with change. Sandra, one of the young people involved in the research, makes the point that “When you make it creative, it allows us to really think what it [energy] is in our lives, and think more openly about it … I like oil spills in water and it does that weird rainbow thing. I saw that and it reminded me how we use oil for electricity and that, and how a lot of it does get wasted.”

Photo Booth story
Photograph: Tim Mitchell © 2018

And, as Bradon Smith and Joe Smith recall of the My Friend Jules game mentioned earlier, “creative writing can bring to the surface (or, coyly, hide in plain sight) our relationships with energy in novel and engaging ways. All shades of opinion, and a mad mix of literary genres, were offered up by the players” in ways that “could not have been revealed by a survey, a focus group, a diary, or historical research. They have different textures and emotional reach. They do different work.”

Connecting with place and community

Like the project, Energetic traces the stories of energy through places and the communities who have co-evolved with them. In some cases, these are captured at a distance, as in The Last Miners, a BBC documentary that Robert Butler discusses for its narrative of end days in the UK’s deep coal mining industries — represented here by the 2015 closure of the Kellingsley Colliery in north Yorkshire — and which he finds curiously silent on context. For “there’s a wider story too: the closure of the pit marks the end of a 250-year-old industry that can claim some responsibility for the Industrial Revolution, the British Empire and anthropogenic climate change.” As he reminds us, “What had come to an end was quite specific, and it was certainly not coal.” The year the colliery closed, four billion tonnes of coal were consumed around the world.

And, of course, energy links every place where it is generated, distributed or consumed to the world-wide impacts of rising carbon levels in the air and oceans and to the spreading ecological and social damage that plays out in place and community elsewhere. David Llewellyn recalls the village of his Welsh Valleys childhood, where “the lower reaches of the small river, the Tyleri, that gives the valley and village its name was barely visible when I was young in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Its blackened, poisoned waters were hidden by mounds of shale and water as it dribbled pitifully towards another similarly decaying watercourse, the Ebbw Fach, which we called, perhaps somewhat affectionately, the River Stink.” Elsewhere in the valleys, and in the present day, Lisa Heledd Jones recalls her journey to a project workshop at the temporary Story Studio they set up in a closed community library:

“It’s an incredible journey. The view from the top is stunning … The view tells its own story — fields, water, trees, pit heads, and wind turbines. The impact of energy carved into the landscape in visible and invisible ways. … The mountains around Treherbert are in the process of another transformation – the Pen y Cymoedd wind energy project. This means 76 turbines dotted above the valley that will turn wind into power for over 200,000 homes and will be the largest of its kind in the UK mainland.”

Mel Rohse worked on the Story Studio project to engage and record local people’s stories and suggests that “it served different groups’ purposes without its message being diluted … although we are interested in the particular theme of energy, we engaged with people on their own terms”; echoing Lisa’s reminder “of something that is too easy to forget — communities don’t have one story. Communities are drawn from imagined lines we all draw around each other for myriad perfectly good reasons — but communities are actually made up of individual people with different experiences and backgrounds that form their opinions and stories … To really imagine what a community in Treherbert might or might not feel about 76 turbines, I would need all the hours left in my life and then some.”

Other places that feature in the multiple narratives of Stories of Change include the early industrial heartlands of Derbyshire, such as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, and Lea Mills in the Derwent valley. Film maker Bexie Bush has crafted an animated film, The Rumour Mill, from the stories told by local people. “Animation has its own unique and powerful way of revealing the soul of a subject” and her short film aims to “make a space for a wider range of views, times and places on the big topic of climate change and energy … But the film is not just about energy – it is also about community, living life to the full, British manufacturing, and most of all coming together to imagine change and bring it about.”

There is much well-grounded optimism — well-grounded because of the processes that brought it about, as much as the stories it contains — and one small word that emerges from the many words is the one picked out by Vicky Long in her account of the work she wove together from the voices in My Friend Jules: miracle. She picks it out of one contribution to that game — a story “about a moment on a tube train when a child learns about the miracle of energy” — and then again:

“‘Miracle’ was a word used by another contributor, and I wanted to hold onto this sense of the miraculous throughout the piece, suggesting that somehow, behind all the mistakes we make, something greater us at work, a miracle we are free to return to, work at, and reengage with in new and more successful ways.”

 

Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb – from: Energetic
Poem: Nick Drake © 2018

A large and complex multi-stranded project such as Stories of Change cannot be fully captured in a book, just as Energetic cannot be given full justice in a short and highly partial review. Fortunately, the project website is a major endeavour in its own right and offers a wealth of examples and information from across the range of places, issues and approaches. 


Find out more

The Stories of Change website offers a map, a timeline and a network as ways into the rich content on offer, which you can also access as a range of media, narratives and frames. Plenty to explore, share and make use of!

The book Energetic is available to view online and download via Issuu.

 

 

The Call of the Forest

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:

Shades of the Land
digital work: Julien Masson © 2017
jfmmasson.com

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…

New Forest tondi
Julien Masson © 2018
jfmmasson.com

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.

Full Cycle
Julien Masson © 2018
jfmmasson.com

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.

Eco responsibility

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.

Call of the Forest
Julien Masson © 2018
jfmmasson.com

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.

Find out more

You can see more of Julien Masson’s work at his websites via our Members Directory.

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.

LIDARWikipedia 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.

 

Adorning Our New Biosphere

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 sleep
But 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 beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had 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.

The Tate website article Climate Change: Can artists have any influence? with J M Ledgard also featured critic and arts correspondent Alastair Smart (whose answer was ‘No’).

 

In the Path of Its Beam

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

 

Signals from the Edge #1

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? As we approach the start of our second year, ClimateCultures offers Members a new challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? 

Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create – whether it’s an image, a short text, a sound, a story board, a dream sequence, a combination of any of these or something other – it might be strong and unambiguous when we perceive it, or weak, barely detected within a background noise; but it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. (You might also want to play with the idea of the background noise in some way, or omit it entirely and offer us just the signal, filtered).

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time or in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. If it carries a message, is it explicit or implicit, coded or clear, instantly familiar even if remote, or entirely alien?

What edge is your signal representing? It might be: a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing.

This is deliberately broad, even vague, to offer you as much room as possible for interpretation. The choice is yours. The key things are:

  1. Offer a short creative piece (maybe 100 – 300 words, or one to five images, or up to three minutes of audio or video).
  2. Ideally, provide a short context or commentary piece alongside it.
  3. If you wish, provide some suggested links that people might follow to explore your inspiration for themselves.

This creative challenge is complementary to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and is not specifically object-oriented; make it as conceptual or as concrete as you like. Let your imagination go free range!

I originally conceived this idea (not very originally) as a postcard: ‘send me an image for the front and a paragraph for the back’. I was going to call it ‘Postcards from the Edge’, but this seemed overly constricting. However, for every contribution we publish on ClimateCultures, I will send a unique postcard to the author, with an image and a text that I have selected or created, bringing them together by self-willed accident or design. As yet, I haven’t worked out what these will be or how I will come up with them, so this is my creative challenge too!

To start the series – and to see whether anyone bites – here is my personal contribution. It is not a template (I haven’t even followed my own ‘serving suggestion’ particularly faithfully) and the fact that it picks up in some way from my own contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects is not a signal (however weak or coded) that others should look to that series for an idea or a model.


Pale.Blue

Pale Blue Dot Syndrome (colloquial, 'Blue'; archaic, 'Sagan's Pixel'): a malaise of Gaian-class consciousness, in legend derived from the ProtoGaian Terra before its first outwave. Though Terra's existence is now doubted by most, the term's origin is implied in that fabled aquatmosphere's supposed chromatocharacteristics.

According to the legend, 'Blue' malaise arose initially among Terra's self-extincted Homosagans, a biosubstrate component that developed protoawareness, dominance delusions and abortive fledgeflight. Their very first projectiletechnoproxysensorium view back to Terra from their solsystem's margins (attributed to the preconscious emissary Voya, which records show may have actually existed, although it would have long ago subsumed into the AyEyeBrane) fed into mistaken notions of Terra's solitary life-bearing status. Fabulists speculate that Homosagans sensed that this one dimensional image – their 'dot' – contained all that their species had ever known, done or been; achievements, failings, experiences and emotional states which they soon after recited into the Blue List Library (also now lost except to legend).

'Blue' then infected the Terran being itself when consciousness bootstrapped from its lively but transient biosubstrates up to the Gaian level and into the All Time, once the Homosagans had ceased and been reabsorbed. As such, myth accords with our understanding of 'Blue' as a persistent memeviroid that all Gaians carry from our zooriginal levels, and which is still capable of inducing disequilibrium regarding our truth claims for the Galactaian One

Into Whose Consciousness We Raise Ourselves.

Context

On 5th September 1977 (when I was 12 years old, the human population was just over 4 billion and CO2 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere were about 335 ppm), NASA launched its Voyager I probe as part of a mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. That mission was completed in 1989 (24; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm) and both Voyagers I and II later travelled on into the outer reaches of the solar system. On 25th August 2012 (47; over 7 billion; about 395 ppm), Voyager I flew beyond the heliopause, the outer extent of the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind. At this point, it became humanity’s first physical artefact to reach interstellar space (radio and TV broadcasts first reached into this zone some 60 years earlier: humanity’s first emissaries to other suns…).

Voyager I is currently moving away from us at a speed of over 3.5 AUs per year (one rather anthropocentrically named Astronomical Unit being the average distance from Earth to the Sun: about 93 million miles, which sunlight covers in about 8 minutes); at that rate, it would take the probe about 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest solar neighbour at 267,000 AUs away (although it isn’t even headed in that direction). Our TV broadcasts, travelling outwards at the speed of light, clock up 63,000 AUs per year, and reach Proxima Centauri in just over four years. On these scales, Voyager is very slow and still very very close to home.

Meanwhile, on 14th February 1990 (25; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm), astrophysicist Carl Sagan revealed an image that Voyager I’s camera had recorded when NASA colleagues – at his request – turned the probe to point back to the Sun. Almost hidden in the frame, obscured by sunlight flaring off the spacecraft itself, was an image of Earth that had never been seen before, from a vantage point that had never previously been possible: 40 AUs out, or over 3.7 billion miles, our world as the now famous Pale Blue Dot.

Pale Blue Dot – “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam” Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech © 2017

Voyager’s camera was still close to home in cosmic terms, and moving at the pace of an Arcturan MegaSnail (had Douglas Adams ever invented one); but these were distances and velocities as far beyond human experience as we are ever likely to see from again in my lifetime (90 if I’m lucky? 9 billion? 600 ppm at the current rate of stupidity?) And it came just 18 years after another famous image of Earth  — this time as a blue marble — when, in December 1972 (8; 3.9 billion, about 330 ppm), the Apollo 17 astronauts captured the whole Earth on their approach to the Moon. One of the most viewed — and transmitted — images of our planet will have reached our nearest neighbour at around the time Voyager I was launched.

The Earth as seen from Apollo 17, 1972
Image taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans, astronauts  Photo: Public domain, NASA

 

Apollo 17 was the final mission to the Moon in the 20th century. Those last humans walking on an alien world – the most remote that any such beings have ever been from other members of their own species (or from any other we know of, other than the ones in their own guts) – were less than 0.003 AUs from home. So far, barring any microbes catching a ride on our space probes, no other terrestrial lifeform has made it further (except for in those TV adverts, of course).

As mentioned in my piece for A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, as well as their cameras and other instruments, the Voyager craft also took recordings of human and other Earthly voices and sounds. Incredibly, some of the instruments are still gathering data and sending them back home for NASA to detect, unpick and translate: ever-weakening signals from way beyond. But the camera that recorded us all as a pale blue dot will never see us again.

Someone might be looking down a long lens from a distant future, however. A future when they — alien intelligences, perhaps on the scale of whole worlds — might also have found solace in myths, arts and sciences of their own, and are maybe broadcasting them on faster-than-light entertainment shows and a Star Wide Web that spills out far beyond their star clusters, backwards in time and space towards us. What new technology will enable us to receive and read their dark spectrum?

***

Back on Earth, Carl Sagan spoke to his press conference audience as he presented the image for the first time. You can watch him on a 1990 TV broadcast that would have overtaken Voyager I about six hours later. He later developed his theme in his book, Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: a vision of the human future in space, 1994