Taking the World for a Walk

Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk app, taking its blend of geology and biology on a walk into local woods, guided by its Fool and Scientist, to explore 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history towards Now.


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


“We will see how one thing jumps out of another thing, the second thing completely different from the first thing. We will see impossibility. Second steps may be unlikely but first steps are impossible! But impossibility isn’t a problem. It doesn’t stop anything, it only maybe slows it down. It is a weak wall; everything is always pushing it down, striding straight through it.”    – The Fool

“You came from this! Every one of your senses developed in relation to this Earth. You smell because the Earth is smellable … You touch because the Earth is touchable. And you think because the Earth is thinkable. You and the Earth are two ends of the same thing. Only you can split them, by imagination. Or rather, by a failure of imagination. Failing to imagine what is actually the case.”   – The Scientist

 

 

3500 – 3400 million years ago

This is a walk through 4.6 billion years of Deep Time of Earth’s history towards Now. A walk taken by a Fool and a Scientist, trading insights, knowledge and deep questions as they go — and along the way they bring us into their explorations of life and our world. This blend of geology and biology is the story of us and all the others that have made the long journey before and beside us. Of how non-living and living matter shape and adapt to each other, freighting oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and other essential elements through their loops and feedbacks. Travel is important to this story – it is the story – and a walk with expert guides is the perfect vehicle.

The team behind the Deep Time Walk App has just celebrated reaching their crowdfunding target, matching Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the project further. But the app is available now and is well worth exploring. The first interactive mobile app of its kind, Deep Time Walk accompanies you along Earth’s entire geological timeline (so far), and can be taken anywhere in the world — in countryside or urban settings. Moving at a scale of 1 metre to 1,000,000 years, its two guides and a third narrator take in the cosmic beginnings and shape-shifting early aeons of the planet, through the mysterious emergence of life and the long struggle to multicellular organisation, and the coevolution of life with oceans and atmosphere and land. This is a creative and expert overview, combining sciences and humanities to take in the grand and the minuscule scales of what we are made from and who we are: the biosphere amongst hydro-cryo-litho-pedo-atmo-spheres.

Deep Time Walk App 2017
Deep Time Walk App 2017 © Deep Time Walk team, http://www.deeptimewalk.org

A new walking companion

If you want to enjoy a walk of a few miles then you’ll probably choose a new walking companion with some care – especially if they are going to do all the talking! So a guide like this requires good writing, sympathetic narration and a high quality production. Fortunately, Deep Time Walk boasts all three and will enhance your stroll through either a familiar landscape or a first-time encounter. I’ve listened in full three times: on a walk through my local woods; a trek to my nearest train station and then on the journey itself; and as a conventional audiobook at home. There was something new each time, such is the wealth of knowledge packed into the story. And the app team’s decision to involve three voices — three characters in narrator, scientist and fool — enhances the impact of all that information. And the conversational tone engages the listener as a fourth character, which is key to making an experience that rewards repeated listening. No surprises that the text is brought to life by professional actors: Peter Marinker, Chipo Chung and Paul Hilton are voices you may recognise from many radio and TV productions. 

2000 – 1900 million years ago

Time and the body: working on a human scale

Pacing is important here, and although the walk takes you at a steady one-metre-to-the-megayear rate — calibrated to your pace when you enter your height into the app — it is able to take in varying rhythms of geological and biological change. Partly this is down to well-timed pauses along the way, as you’re encouraged to stop and enjoy the view while the characters explore key transitions in detail or they review the journey so far to emphasise key points. Mainly, it’s down to the quality of the writing and the interplay between the scientist and the fool, which strikes a balance between ‘informative’ and ‘entertaining’ as the content requires. Fool and scientist are far more than the stereotypes they could easily have been cast as, showing emotional depth and at times either supporting the other through doubts or picking up on their assumptions. In other words: human beings. And, throughout, the changing planet is itself treated as a personality. Only very occasionally does this risk straying into ‘Mother Earth’ speak, but never steps too far. And this is, after all, the territory of Gaia — the Earth-System-as-lifeform metaphor, which can sometimes revert into Goddess talk. If that’s your thing then you will find the occasional references to her pleasing; if it’s not, they are too occasional to get in the way of the fascinating science and the real wonder of how and what this world is, and how we have come to understand so much and yet so little of it. If you can’t take a good metaphor for a walk, who can you take?

1600 – 1500 million years ago

The app comes with a glossary, which you can access at various points through the story to learn more about the terms you are hearing. As far as I could see, there’s no way to scroll through this independently of the narration, which would have been handy at times when I wanted check with something later. So, if you want to know more about the solar system’s Gas Giants then you’ll need to check that when they crop up during your few metres walking through the “arrival of liquid water” (partly on asteroids swung into Earth through the orbital slingshots of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune); the glossary then moves on to consider this Late Heavy Bombardment in more detail. But you won’t want to keep interrupting your walk to check the screen and pause the narration, so the glossary is best explored later on; you can set the app to ‘walk free’ mode and just sit back to take the tour with an eye on the screen. With that in mind, it’s a shame the glossary can’t be searched independently on the app, and doesn’t appear on the website, because it provides a lot of extra detail in a concise and very readable format. Maybe that is an area that the new crowdfunding support will help the team to develop.

1300 – 1200 million years ago

I’d also have liked to see part of the narration encouraging me to connect what I was hearing to what I could see around me on the walk. That couldn’t be truly interactive of course — at least in this phase of the app’s development — but it would be possible to pose questions or give pointers to things we might encounter on a typical urban or rural walk. Thinking of the natural geology that we’ve transformed into buildings, roads and other infrastructure, for example, do we ever stop to consider how long ago the rocks and minerals were laid down, the journeys they have been on as volcanic, tectonic and weathering activities have shaped and reshaped them? And my woodland walk sparked off many associations with what I was hearing about the development of photosynthesis and the accelerating diversity of early life. 

Deep Time Walk App
Deep Time Walk App © Deep Time Walk team
http://www.deeptimewalk.org

But these are very minor issues compared with the ambition of the project to bring Deep Time to life or, as the creators say, “make the unfathomable, fathomable”. It’s an ambition that this beautifully designed app delivers on. I will be very interested to see how it develops further with the new funding – and how artists and others make use of it as a creative stimulus or maybe a tool in their own explorations of time and change.

And the last section of the walk? The final metre is a million years, just like all the others, so that’s a mere 20 cm for the time our species has been on Earth, give or take. We leave the last Ice Age just 1.3 cm behind our Now, and we’re just a fingernail deep into shaping the Anthropocene… Where next?


Find out more

You can read about the history of the app and the team of scientists, writers and artists behind it, at deeptimewalk.org and watch their Crowdfunder video. You can download the app for IOS or Android via the Deep Time Walk website or direct from Apple Store or Google Play.

In this Aeon article from October 2016 David Farrier, a literary scholar at Edinburgh University, explores the meeting of Deep Time and the Anthropocene, where our “need to imagine deep time in light of our present-day concerns is more vital than ever. Deep time is not an abstract, distant prospect, but a spectral presence in the everyday.”

Back in 2014 — or about a micron or two ago —  the Smithsonian magazine reviewed Imagining Deep Time, an art exhibition then showing at the US National Academy of Sciences, and you can see a gallery of the images.

Questioning Deep Time? Space for creative thinking... 

"For you, how is Deep Time revealed most clearly in the human body - your body? Through its interactions with the physical world - moving, breathing, sensing? Through its development over your lifetime, or its prehistory (and future history) across generations? Through its consciousness, and the dreams and visions you create with it?" 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.

A People of the Fall

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.


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes  


A copy of the novel goes to Julien Masson for his contribution to 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.

Cover illustration to The Inheritors, by Neil Gower
Cover illustration to The Inheritors
Artist: Neil Gower © 2011
Source: http://www.neilgower.com/william-golding/

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.

Darkness visible

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.

Darkness Visible: H sapiens enters the Long Barrow, West Kennet. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Darkness Visible: H sapiens enters the Long Barrow, West Kennet
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2016

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.

Malay Archipelago Orang-Utan attacked by Dyaks. Woodcut by Joseph Wolf, 1869
Malay Archipelago Orang-Utan attacked by Dyaks
Woodcut by Joseph Wolf, 1869
Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File%3AMalay_Archipelago_Orang-Utan_attacked_by_Dyaks.jpg

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." 

 

Interstices of Things Ajar

intersticesMark Goldthorpe explores interstices — a “space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous” — and associations with birds that play off his fascination with two mythical ravens.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes 


The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines an interstice as “a space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous; a short space of time between events”:

‘You don’t need to read between the lines to understand the history of interstice; its etymology is plain to see. Interstice derives from the Latin interstitium, which is itself formed from the prefix inter-, meaning “between,” and -stes, meaning “standing.” Interstices are the cracks and crevices of life, and the word is often used for both the literal and figurative gaps of the world. In modern uses, interstice can even refer to gaps in time or to special niches in the larger expanse of something else. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould used it, for example, to comment, ‘Dinosaurs held sway for 100 million years while mammals, all the while, lived as small animals in the interstices of their world.’

I first discovered interstices in Robert Frost’s On a Bird Singing in its Sleep:

A bird half wakened in the lunar moon
Sang halfway through its little inborn tune.

It could not have come down to us so far,
Through the interstices of things ajar,
On the long bead chain of repeated birth,
To be a bird while we are men on earth,
If singing out of sleep and dream that way
Had made it much more easily a prey.

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard maybe saw the value of getting into the “space that intervenes between closely spaced things” when he wrote of “The minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

In a review of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in The Independent, landscape writer Ken Worpole explains that “Bachelard was a phenomenologist, holding the view that there was a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surroundings.” In a passage that seems to suggest something for our approaches to the Anthropocene, Worpole describes his conversations with architects designing hospices:

“Architects will tell you that designing intimate buildings is much more difficult than erecting monoliths. Those I have talked to in writing a book about the new hospice movement have employed Bachelard’s vocabulary of intimacy; they have described the need to create distinct psychological thresholds between open and closed, inside and outside, arrival and departure … places of contemplation and a gathering-in of memory and self-discovery.”

When metaphors take flight

When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Culturing Climate Change, his repeated use of ‘circulating’ became ‘circling’. Memory carrying me to buzzards circling over my local woods quickly triggered an image of a bird high above a group of desert exiles. Oblivious, the humans are trapped in arguments about where they are, how they got lost and which way to go. A second bird joins the first. More gather, their shadows crossing and recrossing below. The arguing wanderers don’t notice until their patch of land is completely shadowed. Circling, birds wait for humans to … what? Fight themselves into extinction? Give in to weakness and fatigue? Finally act together? Fanciful, but the birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up ‘culturing climate change’ into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.

These associations play off my fascination with a reference to ravens in Anticipatory History – a creative glossary on landscape and wildlife change. In one entry, Birds, writer and radio producer Tim Dee evokes the nearly supernatural skills that the power of flight gives birds in many of our myths:

“Two ravens tumble from the sky cronking and surfing towards the shoulders of Odin, the man-god. One is called Hugin, the other Munin. One whispers into Odin’s ears what it has seen; the other, what is to come. They fly with the world’s past and its future held in their black eyes. Later, ravens were thought able to predict the outcome of a battle because of their uncanny habit – it seemed – of coming around armies waiting to fight. How did they know? We read them as able to foretell what was to come; in fact, they read us based on their knowledge of how things had been in the past.”

Appearing in the 13th century Norse Poetic Edda, Hugin translates as ‘thought’, Munin as ‘memory’: twin abilities (or afflictions), bringing both futures and pasts into mind. Such troubling powers, perhaps, that myth puts distance between them and mere humans, gifting them instead to gods and animals…

Raven Banner
Artist: Skydrake 2014
Public Domain: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_banner#/media/File%3ARaven_Banner.svg

Over the next few days, birds kept cropping up. Browsing the BBC archives for late night listening, I found Radio 3’s Is Birdsong Music? What is the relationship between what the 4,000-or-so species of songbirds produce and what we think of as music? Are they ‘simply’ speaking, or actually singing? As presenter Tom Service says, “This is all territory that skirts boundaries of language, music and anthropomorphic wish fulfilment.” Many composers have tried to capture the sound of birdsong in musical notation; an attempted translation that’s doomed to fail, but fails beautifully. Birdsong is too fast, too high and uses notes that don’t exist on anyone’s piano, operating “in a different scale of time and meaning than any humanly produced system of sounds, whether we’re taking about music or language.” Meanwhile, in 1889, 8 year old Ludwig Koch recorded his pet Indian Shama onto a wax cylinder: 128 year-old birdsong.

The Great Animal Orchestra by sound recordist Bernie Krause has featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4. He chronicles how human sound (anthrophony) drowns out the biophony and geophony of the (rest of the) natural world. Maybe a small part of that deluge is recordings of long-dead birds… Krause also appears in Is Birdsong Music?, explaining how we should always hear the sounds of any species in the context of what else is going on in the local soundscape: “birds fill the niches left empty by other species in that particular habitat … where there’s no other acoustical territory being occupied by other creatures.” He suggests that humans learned the art of orchestration from the structure of sounds in the animal world, where each species has to find its niche in the overall ‘animal orchestra’: Nature as ‘proto-orchestra’.

He was there again, in The Listeners, a series about people whose professional lives revolve around listening. Krause’s work reveals a different facet to extinction than ‘simply’ eradicating the species: “Of the 4,500 hours of marine and terrestrial habitats that I have recorded, 50% are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.”

In Raven, presenter Brett Westwood and bird rearer Lloyd Buck go blackberrying with Brann the raven. Lloyd takes Brann for a flight every day and likens him to a ‘flying dog’. In the Mabinogion, Bran The Blessed — a Celtic king associated with ravens — was killed by invaders and his head buried on a hill, facing south to defend the land from further invaders. Clearly, he fell asleep on the job, as that hill became the site for the Norman invaders’ White Tower: the Tower of London. Bran’s association with ravens has led to the legend that if they ever disappear from the Tower, England will fall (a legend revisited in White Ravens, a Second World War re-interpretation of the Mabinogion tale from novelist and poet Owen Sheers).

Raven also told how when sound recordist Chris Watson saw a woodcut of Odin in Reykjavik’s Sagas Museum, there were Hugin and Munin on the Raven God’s shoulders, whispering in his ears. Remembering his own encounters with the call-and-response of roosting ravens, he says “I was struck by what I’d heard in that forest in North Wales, because I really felt as if I’d heard some of these conversations that Hugin and Munin must have had with Odin in the halls of Valhalla.” Watson later created a raven-based sound installation, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest: a twenty channel speaker system in the forest canopy. When he led his audience through the darkening forest to hear the sound of 2,000 ravens returning to roost, everyone was silent, the ravens’ conversations with their god the only sound.

Psychologist, and Scientist in Residence with the Rambert dance company, Nicky Clayton studies how ravens and other corvids “think in terms of movement rather than words.” She’s interested in the ‘mental time travel’ abilities of Hugin and Munin:

“the ability to remember the past and to think about the future. So you could see this as being memory and forethought. You might think that these are different skills but actually the two are interlinked. Specifically, our ability to remember the past, to project oneself in time to remember what happened where and when, that kind of memory really evolved for the future. So these are memories of the future, memories of tomorrow, and that’s why they’re linked to forethought. Ravens and corvids in general have absolutely stunning memories of past events, and they are one of the few animals other than us who are known to be capable of forethought, of being able to plan ahead.” 

But ravens can’t remember everything. They cache many small food hoards across their territories, to return to when food is scarce. But some is never recovered, and seeds take root. In Corvids Could Save Forests From the Effects of Climate Change, journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz summarises recent research on how this rather haphazard behaviour might help forests survive climate change, given the inconvenient fact that trees can’t ‘up sticks’ and move themselves. “Over millennia of evolution, this arrangement has become mutually beneficial” and now conservationsts make use of this ‘ecological silviculture’; encouraging corvids to cache seeds in areas needing reforestation. Newitz says:

“Corvids have unwittingly become a key part of a virtuous cycle. By planting seeds, they lay the groundwork for entire ecosystems. Many plants thrive in the shade offered by trees like oaks and pines, and animals flock to the area as well. Finally, forest floors are excellent carbon sinks. Scatter-hoarding corvids are, in fact, guardians of the forest – or, as the researchers put it, geoengineers.” 

When I started seeing birds circling in my mind, I was thinking back (and ahead) to Hugin and Munin and their ability to help Odin navigate past and future. Ever since I first read Anticipatory history, this has struck me as a hopeful metaphor for our potential to cast ourselves back and forth in time and geography, to imagine ourselves beyond the impossibilities of climate change. So it was a natural bridge between the Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be a second part, on navigating complexities. Somewhere in my nighttime podcasting, I’d heard someone mention that Vikings used ravens to guide their ships far from shore: birds as real navigational aid(e)s, not simply metaphorical ones. But, listening again while I made my notes, I’ve failed to find this reference. Maybe I saw it somewhere else, or dredged up some other association, or just missed it on the second hearing? Memory has let me down, appropriately enough. But Wikipedia did offer a brief reference; Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to (deliberately) sail to Iceland, took three ravens with him. When the first flew back to the Faroes, Flóki knew he wasn’t yet halfway. The second bird circled and returned to the ship. When the third raven headed northwest and didn’t come back, Flóki followed it to Iceland.


Find out more:

Miriam-Webster Dictionary, Interstice

Robert Frost, On a Bird Singing in its Sleep and other poems are available at The Hypertext Poems

Ken Worpole, Book of a Lifetime: The Poetics of Space, The Independent 23rd April 2009

BBC Is Birdsong Music?  The Listening Service, Radio 3 19th June 2016

BBC The Listeners, Series 2 Episode 2, Radio 4 18th August 2014

BBC Raven – Natural Histories, Radio 4, 14th November 2016

Tim Dee – Birds, in Anticipatory History (edited by Caitlin deSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett) Uniform Books 2011

Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra – Book of the Week, Radio 4 April 2012, rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra February 2017

Annalee Newitz – Corvids could save forests from the effects of climate change, Ars Technica, 8th February 2016

Owen Sheers – White Ravens, Seren Books, 2009

Chris Watson – Hrafn: Conversations with Odin

Wikipedia – Bran the Blessed

Wikipedia – Flóki Vilgerðarson