Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Returning to a theme of 'Wicked Cultures' for 'Wicked Problems', I give my personal review of John Gardner's Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about 'Othering' the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print

On Night in the Daytime

On a Spring day, we gathered for The Night Breathes Us In - part of Reading's Festival of the Dark.

Saturday 25th March – almost on the Spring Equinox – was the perfect day to be in Reading for the latest instalment of its year-long Festival of the Dark. Blossoms and blue skies and a temperature to match, with a good crowd making use of Forbury Gardens just off the town centre. I’ve never discovered this Reading park before. I’m glad I’ve done so.

It was also my first Dark Mountain experience, although I’ve often explored the digital foothills at their site. Their approach to the complexities of climate change and our uncontrolled planetary experiment has intrigued me, and continues to as I feel myself circling closer into its nuances. The name of the event, The Night Breathes Us in, captures this beautifully, expanding our focus to the more-than-human and its agency over us (even while we disrupt it) but acknowledging the unavoidable centrality of our selves within out own experience.

Sadly, in my case, the night only partially inhaled; I was able to stay for the afternoon but missed out on the evening. So, this is an invitation to someone else to post a blog on the second half!

The black marquee in the middle of the gardens was an intimate space to share stories and experiences under the guidance of Dark Mountain explorers, and the three sessions I took part in there brought quiet reflections and gentle conversations.

Hands and Boots
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Uncivilised Poetics – against demented questions

We began with the launch of Dark Mountain’s new book, with readings from the poems and essays in Uncivilised Poetics, and music and natural sounds from the book’s companion CD. Writer and editor Nick Hunt suggested poetics as a needed counterweight to the dominant language and statistics of technical and policy narratives. Poetics – not just poems, but art as exploration and an open-ended questioning – helps engage us in a world that cannot be captured in the beguiling, make-safe terminologies of ‘management’. Nick quoted from William Stafford’s poem, A Ritual to Read Each Other: “For it is important for awake people to be awake … the darkness around us is deep.” 

Everyday language can trick us into unseeing important truths, and even our attempts to see a bit wider can still fence us inside our illusions. One of the passages shared in our dark tent in the middle of a city park was from Robert Bringhurst’s essay The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World:

“When I was a youngster in school, someone asked me, ‘If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not? The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and he cries that he has no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?” – Robert Bringhurst

This demented quality to a lot of what we tell ourselves about ‘the world’ and ‘ourselves’ is what Dark Mountain, the Festival of the Dark and others are countering. Poetics is part of what can help us overcome this strange collective lack of traction on the depths and connectedness of the world. Bringhurst also quotes Skaay, a Haida poet from America’s north west indigenous cultures, who refers to humans as xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay: “plain, ordinary surface birds.”

“Creatures with more power – killer whales, loons, grebes, sea lions, seals – know how to dive. They pierce the surface, the xhaaydla it is called in Haida.” – Robert Bringhurst

Poetics is one way for us plain, ordinary surface birds to pierce the flatness of our worldviews.

Crossing the Bridge

Art editor and writer Charlotte du Cann guided us in Crossing the Bridge, an exploration of the traditional solar and growing cycles of the year: the solstices and equinoxes, and the seasons of fertility, growth, fruitfulness and latency that they help to parcel out. These are transitions from which we are easily distanced but never truly separated. We need to know how we are creatures in and of time: a deeper one than is surfaced in our phones or clocks. Deep time is not just in the rocks and soils. It’s built into our substance: bones, tissues and cells, and in the bacterial cohabitants inside us. Everything that makes us ‘us’. It’s inside the shallow time of our daily preoccupations, even as these try to hide it from us.

Using stones that the group had brought in pockets or memories – stones from beaches, flint soils and rivers, from ancient glacier beds or the mysterious recesses of ebay – we toured the eight solar and soilar doors of the yearly cycle. We explored the associations, memories and feelings through whatever door we found ourselves placed at on our stone clock. What do the light of summer or the dark of winter do with us, within our minds and bodies?

Making the stone clock
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

And we talked about the stones we’d brought to share. I found memories of the shingle of Orford Ness in Suffolk, and how on one scale – the beach itself – it reveals the seeming fragility of places and lives on the edge, constantly subject to the waves and currents eroding matter here, depositing it there. On another scale – the individual pebble – shingle reveals the persistence of matter as it’s shaped and smoothed and swept onwards. Beach and pebble contain deep time in cycles that “it is important for awake people to be awake” to. Sharing a pocketful of stones brought a beach of stories into the tent.

Holding the Fire

My afternoon inside the black tent closed with theatre maker and author Lucy Neal guiding us through Holding the Fire. She shared inspiration from three key character for her: women from history, personal experience and mythology.

Lucia of Syracuse, a Sicilian Christian of the Third Century, used a wooden headtorch to show her a path through the darkness as she took food and comfort to the poor. And Lucy demonstrated her own candle headdress to great effect. 

Lucia of Syracuse
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Lucy met Hildegard Kurt at a workshop in Slovenia. Hildegard used moments of quiet reflection and exchange to reveal: how we hold knowledge and creativity inside ourselves; that this can help us recognise our active part and potential within the flux of environmental crises; a shared space can enable us to explore a different possibility.

Hestia, daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, was the ancient Greek Goddess of the Hearth. Her role emphasises the importance of the fire in domestic and public life; Homer’s hymn to her acknowledges that “Without you, mortals hold no banquet.”

With these examples in mind – of the hearth, shared space and light in the dark – we spoke in pairs, sharing stories of times and experiences of seeing and being seen differently and of awakeness.

Taken together, it was a lot of time to spend in the half-dark tent, but refreshing. And the ‘outside world’ was never absent. Early on, for about 30 minutes, a ladybird crawled over my left hand. It paused occasionally as it struggled to stretch the wings from under its red enamelled carapace, testing if they were ready. Eventually, it managed to unstick itself and take off. Later, speeding police sirens tore across our quiet voices inside, momentarily taking our minds back outside. Everyday life was proceeding all around us. Later, when I looked at the photos I’d taken inside the twilight, I saw how the automatic exposure had kept the camera’s aperture open long enough to paint the black fabric walls almost transparent, the unseen sun revealing a shadowy world beyond the veil. Three simple ways that the ‘outside’ – human, more-than-human, solar – had pierced the surface for the xhaaydla xitiit ghidaay.

 

Find out more:

The Night Breathes Us In is part of the Festival of the Dark, a year-long festival in Reading, produced by Outrider Anthems. You can read Jennifer Leach’s blog leading up to the event here.

Dark Mountain Project – published Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (“Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths”) in 2009, and has produced many events and 10 volumes of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and images since then.

Nick Hunt – part of Dark Mountain’s editorial team, Nick is a writer of non-fiction and fiction (including the short story Green Bang, which was one of the commissions from TippingPoint’s 2014 Weatherfronts programme). His second book will be published this Autumn: Where the Wild Winds Are is his account of walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover how they affect landscapes, peoples and cultures.

Charlotte du Cann – also part of Dark Mountain’s editorial team, Charlotte writes about mythology, metaphysics and cultural change and teaches collaborative writing. She is the author of 52 Flowers That Shook My World: A Radical Return to Earth

Lucy Neal – theatre maker, writer and community activist, Lucy is interested in the role the arts play to nurture and provoke the changes needed to transition our society to a more ecological age. She is the author of Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered.

 

On Sullied Seas

Our third Members' Post is from Mary Eighteen, a fine artist with a deep concern for how humanity is destroying the future of our oceans and in turn ourselves. She introduces her ongoing collection of works on the Sullied Atlantic and Acidification.

Ghost ships

One day I was sitting on a train commuting home. Opposite me a man was reading a newspaper, the front page of which was facing me. On that page was a large muted image of a fleet of obsolete naval ships. They were the Mothball Fleet, soon to be known as the James River Ghost Ships because in America, under the Bush administration, these ships were left to rot and decay on the James River in Virginia. As their plight unfolded, it became national news and when thirteen of the ships were destined to be destroyed in Hartlepool Greenpeace got involved. The ships were so toxic it was feared, given their toxic state, they would break up at sea, causing an environmental disaster. Eventually four ships came to Hartlepool. Although I wanted to travel to photograph them, it was not allowed due to their toxic state. While at first I saw these ships as lost souls destined for a ships’ graveyard, I became seduced by their rusted surfaces and eventually the toxins that lead to their destruction.

The toxins within these ships made me realise only too clearly the demise of our oceans in relation to ocean toxicity and its threat to the future of our oceans and subsequently mankind.

Climate change and ocean toxicity are inextricably linked, and this scenario has become the cultural phenomenon of our time. Our oceans are sick. They are slowly suffocating under the plethora of carbon dioxide entering its surface and depth.

An Atlantic story

Sullied Atlantic 14 (work on canvas 102cm x190cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2016
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

And so, the ships’ story, evoking the problems concerning ocean toxicity, has become my story, a story that has taken me to the mystical island of Skye, Pembrokeshire, Cornwall and hopefully soon, the West of Ireland, to document and research the Atlantic. The Sullied Atlantic series of paintings started as a response to a visit to Skye In the Hebrides. I wanted to see and experience the purity of the Atlantic in the Hebrides and then ‘Sully’ it on canvas, to show how humanity is destroying the future of our oceans and in turn ourselves. I work in a series of collections that are constantly being updated and developed. I work between them in accordance with that development and add new collections when inspired to do so.

My paintings are a metaphor for change. They allude to an opposition to ecological purity and human endeavour, by presenting an oceanic world devoid of tenacity and social concern. The paintings are the opposite of purity. They present a sullied ecology, sucked into an anoxic environment. They acknowledge an indulgence in nature’s richness while at the same time destroying that possibility through thoughtlessness and banality. That banality underpins the depth of the problem concerning the relationship between humanity and the ocean. Thoughtlessness has become a contemporary subterfuge that lends itself to misguided human activity, resulting in the pollution now affecting the ocean. Ocean ‘dead zones’ are becoming more common, acidification accelerating, with unprecedented speed, and it is only our human race that can halt this progress.

Sullied Atlantic 8 (work on canvas 140cm x 125 cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2015
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

The paintings included in this blog respond directly to various facets of ocean pollution. While a collection box is not open yet, I am at this moment researching the plight of our Benthic Communities: the small organisms that live within the sediment of the ocean floor or the sediment in the shelf sea. Larger Benthic community members might be clams or crabs. The smaller organisms such as the Brittle Star that live in the shelf sea sediment are vulnerable to trawlers that scrape and dig into the sediment. The most vulnerable are the microscopic organisms that are so small they cannot be seen. These communities intrigue me, because they form a whole ecosystem that is vital to our survival. Apart from trawlers, these organisms – including crustaceans – are increasingly the victim of ocean acidification. The depletion of these communities would eventually affect human life. Sadly, because many people are not aware of these small organisms so vital to our survival, the problem is now serious. This means that people need to be made aware of that problem.

Invisible threat

Recently I was in a solo exhibition at ONCA Gallery in Brighton. It gave an opportunity to exhibit work in a gallery committed to the environment, but also a chance, through talks that were juxtaposed with the exhibition, to raise how serious this problem is. We can see the devastation caused by oil slicks, we can see the rubbish left by humans on the beach and in the sea, but we cannot see many of the microscopic organisms that are so under threat.

At the moment, I am hoping that my own research into Benthic Communities will help raise such awareness. The paintings once again will be a metaphor for change. They will be created and presented with this need for change in mind.

Acidification 5 (work on canvas 190cm x 210cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2016
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

As I always work between varied collections of work, the acidification paintings I have been working on will also be in progress. In the acidification collection, the work is more monochrome in terms of limited colour. This is because acidification is about bleaching of the healthy colour of a crustacean or other sea life. Communities will be sucked away under the toxic suffocation of carbon dioxide as it enters the sea in unprecedented amounts. I have used varied shades of green white and creams to respond to this subject. I am enjoying the process and am pleased to be invited to be part of ClimateCultures.

Find out more:

www.maryeighteen.com

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

I set a challenge: share your choice of three objects that have personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging 'Age of Human'. Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

“The Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you?”

Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects

From the here and now …

I’d booked ahead for a B&B, so my only task here was to trawl leaflets and maps and get some local tips. Although it was the Easter holidays and as busy as I’d expected, two advisers were free, chatting behind the counter. Both turned to help me as I approached.

“I’d like to see the Scallop,” I said. “I know it’s on the beach; which direction from here?” 

I’d not expected this to open up an argument in a Tourist Information Centre, even a good-humoured one. But, smiling, the woman immediately responded.

”Oh, don’t start your visit with that. It’s very unpopular around here!”

I’d hardly had time to wonder if this was an unusual tack from someone paid to promote the local sights when the man butted in, equally cheery.

“Don’t listen! Lots of people love it, and not just tourists. I think it’s wonderful.” 

It was maybe unwise to reveal that Maggi Hambling’s famous sculpture was the main reason I was visiting the town, or that I’d heard it had helped “put Aldeburgh on the map”, but I think I said something along those lines. I’d already heard that this very public artwork had divided opinion quite starkly; that was part of its attraction for me, although from photographs I already knew which camp I was going to be in. As I discovered, however, the photographs don’t do Scallop justice. Its setting does (and is repaid in kind). Being in its presence was to experience very direct communication with both environment and history, and an unsettling encounter with the future.

Aldeburgh, like many Suffolk coastal settlements, has been disappearing from the map for centuries. On my way from Tourist Centre to Scallop that morning in 2007, I also had my first encounter with the town’s 16th century Moot Hall. Once both the geographical and political centre of the town, this is now right up against the beach. All the streets and buildings on its eastern side have long gone, the sea moving in by stages over the centuries. Where Maggi Hambling’s massive, 4 metre high stainless steel seashell stands might once have been fields; now it’s shingle. 

Aldeburgh is famous as the home of composer Benjamin Britten and the annual music festival he founded there in 1948. Scallop, a tribute to him and his legacy, is also testimony to coastal changes that have sculpted Aldeburgh. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman, the deaths of his apprentices at sea and his own stormy fate. It’s based on a 19th century poem cycle, The Borough, by George Crabbe. Carved into the giant metal shell – actually cut right through it, so the sky writes the words through the absence within the solid matter – is one line from the opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” 

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe, © 2014

Every time I see these words on my visits to Scallop or in my photographs of it, it has the same cold-heat effect on my scalp. 

The coast-eroding waters have taken so many lives, but still we are here. Part of the flux, and subject to it, we’re drowned in a natural history that’s also, increasingly, made by our species. The fears and anxieties that coastal change brings can split communities from each other and from the institutions charged with planning for the impacts of future change: landowners, heritage bodies, councils, coastal agencies, government departments. The divided response to Scallop somehow exemplifies this ever-present potential for conflict over our local places, and (evoked in the words cut through solid matter) conflict over our national responses to refugees from climate impacts around the world.

‘For Maggi Hambling, the phrase has universal significance: “”We all have voices inside us all the time, whether we’re awake or asleep.” She wants those visiting Scallop to “contemplate the horizon and the movement of the waves, and have a conversation not only with the sea but also with themselves. To listen to their own voices.”‘ – Text on Scallop from website of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Scallop therefore continues to resonate, ten years on from my first encounter. We’re able to experience the lives of others in distant times or places – to ‘undrown’ and hear their voices – through our inner voices and empathies. 

Through the Great Acceleration

When did the Anthropocene begin? The candidates for ‘trigger point’ cover such a broad expanse of our species’ time – from Neolithic Revolution 8,000 years ago to Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and its Great Acceleration in the 20th century, to the widespread nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War – that we have the luxury of choosing our own personal start-point. My choice goes back to the early 17th century: the onset of significant European expansion around the world and the scale of species changes this brought. The diversity of plants, animals and microbes introduced ‘over there’ or brought back ‘home’ — and the species lost – had direct and permanent impacts on humans and others across entire continents, as future archaeologists will know even if the historical accounts we have don’t survive. 

But my chosen object for ‘Anthropocene Past’ doesn’t date from so long ago. The first technology for recording sound was the phonautograph, patented in 1857. Although its recordings could not be played back, an 1860 phonautogram of Au Clair de La Lune was finally heard for the first time in 2008. I’m intrigued that this first replay of the first recording leapfrogged the entire 20th century; the century that made mass recording and consumption of sounds possible and enabled cultural forms that have enriched billions of lives over that time. As with other technologies of capitalism’s Great Acceleration, this benefit comes at its own costs in materials, habitats, energy, waste and pollution. It possibly facilitates other impacts and makes it easier to ignore them: with so much recorded sound within instant reach, not only does it add to the incessant ‘anthrophony’ surrounding us; it masks the erosion of the remaining ‘biophony’, seemingly ‘compensating’ us (but not the other species) for that loss. For me, this complex mix of pluses and minuses hints at the wider Wicked Problem of the Anthropocene.

And my actual object? In 1945 British engineer Marie Killick patented Sapphox, the first truly reusable stylus for playing gramophone records. The innovation of a bevelled flat with sapphire tip made it possible to ride the groove without wearing away either the record surface or the stylus itself. Before this, the gramophone stylus was essentially a ‘one use’ technology that soon became unusable as it wore away. Now a disposable item became a lasting one, produced far superior sound quality and was safer to use with the discs. This must have been part of what made the mass production and enjoyment of records possible after the Second World War. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been possible without it! But modern audio technologies, including records, cassettes, CDs and mp3s, have played their part in spreading not only music and spoken word but also the learning of languages and enjoyment of natural soundscapes from around the world, and from the past. Sapphox represents this progress, but also some of the pitfalls of the age.

Killick’s Sapphox – sales pamphlet
Text by Killick & Company, 1946
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe, 2017

I’m unavoidably biased in my choice, however; Marie Killick was my grandmother. I never met her. Born in 1914, Marie died the year I was born, 1964. Her patent was infringed and, although she won a famous court case, the infringement and the battle for justice left her impoverished and in ill health. After many years of dodgy dealings by her industrial opponents, she was forced into bankruptcy before the damages from her court victory could be awarded. ‘My’ object for our ‘Anthropocene Past’ therefore has many nuanced associations with my own life as well with the stories of the unfolding Age of Human.

And into the dark 

My choice of ‘Anthropocene Future’ object perhaps seems to bend a rule, because the thing itself is current, not something originating in the future. But I’m imagining it at some future time, an uncertain number of decades or centuries away, and at barely imaginable distances from where it started. Already, it’s so remote that for almost all of the tiny proportion of humanity that’s even aware of it, it’s practically an object only of our imaginations.

In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on journeys that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. 40 years on, Voyager 1 has passed that particular environmental boundary and is headed on into deep space and deep time. Voyager 2, not far behind, is yet to emerge from the outer edges of the heliosphere, where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Both Voyagers carry a specially commissioned gold-plated gramophone record and a stylus (descendant of sorts of Sapphox), in the hope that if any extraterrestrials ever encounter it they might decode the instructions and play the sounds and images of Earth, human and more-than-human.

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist & member of the Voyager team

Or perhaps the aliens will just eat it. But in a sense it’s human thought that has gone with the lifeless spacecraft, and maybe there are other thoughts out there that can connect with it, thousands of years from now, light-years from here. Will we still be here, then? Will the other species captured on the discs?

The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further info: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

The future I’m imagining for the Golden Records is not an alien discovery, or what birdsong and human voices might mean to them, but a future where those recorded sounds are the last to escape from Earth. Not because of a final holocaust or natural cataclysm that might wipe us out, but because at some point humanity might well switch off the technology that has indiscriminately been broadcasting our signals into the universe. Signals that were only ever intended for us – radio and TV shows and adverts from the Great Acceleration – have been radiating outwards for the past 70 years, ever since Earth went ‘radio bright’. For everything else out there (and down here), our radio signals are just another form of pollution. At some time, when inefficient technology is superseded, this expanding signal sphere will start to hollow out at its core and a second, more subdued sphere of more-or-less radio silence will grow outwards into the polluted zone. Our radio brightness will go dark again. No doubt by then we’ll have new, more interesting ways of making our presence known. But at the moment that the inner surface of the old radio sphere passes the two probes, the Voyager Golden Records will for the first time be surrounded by an unhuman quiet, and the discs will remain to be decoded. 

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – President Jimmy Carter’s printed message on the Voyager spacecraft.

An Anthropocene timeline

I didn’t expect to pick three objects linked by sound. But the technologies for capturing the sounds of different cultures and times, and mixing these into a new, global mesh of music and learning; a seashell – long used by human ears to imagine a distant sea, and now also the voices of those who will not be drowned; the real voices of people and species frozen in time and cast off into the ultimate deeps; the fading echoes of human technologies broadcasting to the universe; these pick up one small thread among an infinity of possible timelines from whenever the stories of the Anthropocene began to wherever they go. 

Find out more:

A past

A Sound Revolution – By Cynthia Killick: a personal history of Marie Killick, her life and invention of Sapphox, her struggle and legacy.

Mega Invention 6 – The place of Sapphox in the history of inventions?

The Phonautograph – The history of the first known sound recording device. This article also has a sound file of the first phonautogram recording to be played back; although it maybe sounds more like a disgruntled bee than a human reading Au Clair de la Lune, it’s still remarkable to hear a voice from 1860.

A present

Aldeburgh Museum at the Moot Hall – The history of Aldeburgh

Maggi Hambling – her site and her work 

A future

Voyager 1 & 2 Missions – The history of the NASA mission, its discoveries and ongoing journey.

Voyager Golden Records – What is on those records?

 

Interstice # 1: An Excursion Between Culturing and Climate Change

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.

(On interstices…

See Interstices of Things Ajar)

When metaphors take flight

When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Part 1 of 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.” – Nicky Clayton

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.

“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.” – Annalee Newitz

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 Wicked Problems of Part 1 of Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be Part 2: 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.

The search for whatever reference I’d heard before but missed second time got me slightly lost in my thoughts on navigation. But this did help me see that in fact it’s the uncertainty that I need to address in the second part of the series. So, the birds got me somewhere…

Question:

No one said metaphors had to be cheery, but it must be possible to find ones that suggest better ways to see the issues and possible ways ahead. What metaphors do you tend to use for environmental or climate change or the Anthropocene? What new one can you suggest?

 

Find out more:

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