ClimateCultures welcomes poet Nick Drake, who offers his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Coinciding with the publication of his new collection Out of Range — which itself brilliantly explores the strange interconnections and confronting emergencies of our new planetary age — Nick has chosen three of these powerful poems to share with us. His personal selection brings us: objects that have illuminated our world-shifting ways even as their own time faded; one-use objects that will outlast us; nightmare objects that take shape beneath our feet, beneath our streets, beneath our notice, until…
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
Here are three poems from my new poetry collection about objects which speak to me of the Anthropocene.
Incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient, and have been phased out around the world. Ubiquitous, cheap, reliable, disposable, their illumination gradually conquered the dark, and lit much of the world for more than a century. This poem is a way to say hail and farewell to them…. and to remember the powers of the dark.
Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb
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 heart-beat twist of tungsten and a single breath of gas to hold our whole lives long, you sowed one idea in our glass skulls; to shine at your command.
We shed no tears of wax; reliable, disposable, we lived where you lived, lit your parties and wars; one by one we brightened the hill-shanties and towers of your mega-cities; when you were lost, we were home waiting, just a click away to save you from the small hours’ fears; when your lives hung by a thread we stayed as long as necessary; we shone when you were gone.
And when with a quiet tick the luminous spell of our filament broke you cast us off; and now you wish a light perpetual and free, your highways and cities radiant archipelagoes against the dark –
But if the lights go out from time to time, lie back on the black grass, gaze up at the banished constellations, take ancient starlight in, and listen for the dark song of our source summoning, on summer nights and winter afternoons, the antiquated powers of the moon.
Along with chicken bones and radioactivity, plastic bottles are what will survive of us (as Philip Larkin said of love) in the geological record. Nearly 36 million are born every day in this country alone. Less than half make it to recycling. Here’s the story from their point of view.
Still life: Plastic water bottle (used)
Why did you Make us in your image?
Replicants of the prototype, not goddesses of strange fertility, not glass, bone, wood or stone, but generated from dark matter in a split second to join the silent masses, monks, soldiers, clones, waiting in the moonlight of the fridge for you to drink down our short stories of ancient waters and bright sugars until our emptiness is complete – but there we part; cast-off, we colonise every dominion from the highest peak to the deepest fathom of the abyss and though the timeline of the waves degrades us to nanoparticles, yet we will survive all the brief histories of your unsuccessful flesh to abide in every mortal heart undying… Now only you can save us from the doldrums of this everlastingness if you conceive a new skin of beautiful mortality that grants us too the strange sea-change of release into the mercy of everything and nothing
The Whitechapel fatberg is the largest ever recorded in London, but it has siblings in every major city. It holds a mirror up to consumption and what we throw or flush away. The Museum of London curator, Vyki Sparkes, noted how samples — viewable online via the fatcam live-feed — fascinated the public; “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating and disgusting. The perfect museum object.”
(The Whitechapel fatberg, c/o the Museum of London)
Chip fat, cold shits, dead paints, hate mail, grease, used wet-wipes, condoms, nappies, cotton buds, paracetamol, toenail-crescents, needles, hair –
the dregs, swill, scum, muck, slop we flush away are harvest festival for the moony monster who rules the empire of the upside down
beneath the illusion of floorboards, parks and streets; stranger thing, behemoth, lonely ogre, shy Caliban created by our multitudes,
dreaming where the sewers slowly flow through whispering galleries and gargoyle crypts, bringing offerings to the awful sanctuary.
We sent our heroes down in hazmat suits to besiege it; now these abominable lumps festering in sealed and chilled vitrines
on live-feed for the curiosity of the world are all that’s left. The glass holds our reflections, the beautiful ones who love to scare ourselves,
taking selfies with the alien bogey-beast, our nightmare mirror image even now regenerating in the dark beneath our feet.
Out of Rangeis Nick Drake’s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. As well as the three poems above, the book includes portraits of ice-core samples, of those living on the margins of the city streets, and of Voyager 1 crossing the threshold of the solar system. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier(Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change. Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb first appeared in the book Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energy, produced by the Stories of Change project. I reviewed Energetic for ClimateCultures in August 2018.
For more on the Whitechapel fatberg, see this piece by Vyki Sparkes, the Museum of London’s curator, and this one by Lanes Group plc, the company who worked on behalf of Thames Water to remove the monster from its sewer home… Part of the fatberg is now in the museum’s permanent collection, and footage from the fatcam livefeed Nick mentions is available with this article.
Writer and editor Sally Moss works with nonviolence education organisation Commonweal, and she contacted me recently to suggest an interview for their blog. I was very happy to talk with her again - we first met at Weatherfronts in 2014 - and to find out more about the work of Commonweal. Sally's questions were a great opportunity to introduce ClimateCultures to a new audience - and to touch on some of the connections between climate change and violence.
We agreed that it would be a great idea to publish the interview simultaneously on our blogs, as part of this important conversation. Do head over to Commonweal and engage with Commonweal and ClimateCultures on Twitter or Facebook if you'd like to comment on our discussion and take it forward!
approximate Reading Time: 8minutes
Mark Goldthorpe runs the ClimateCultures project, which showcases ‘contributions by artists, curators or researchers working on many aspects of environmental or climate change’.
Its strapline is ‘Creative conversations for the Anthropocene’ (the era when human influence dominates climate and environment), and we took the direct approach by starting a conversation with Mark himself about climate, culture, violence and imagination…
In a nutshell, Mark, what do climate and culture (and activism) have to do with each other?
That’s a huge question, I think!
On a basic level, I guess, climate shapes culture: the ways societies live within their environments, accommodating regional patterns and seasons.
Much of that accommodation is to do with how humans try to understand, predict and protect themselves from climate norms and extremes wherever they live.
Those norms and extremes vary hugely around the world (and over time), so I imagine that differences in culture are also partly affected by this variation – though not in a simple, deterministic way.
Imperial geographers used to find some very handy climatic justifications for the supposed ‘superiority’ of their European cultures over the ones they encountered around the globe. This made the imperial project seem very natural.
This convenient ideology helped drive a lot of the environmental destruction and social oppression that still exists today, and which, of course, climate justice activism and other types of activism are trying to redress.
Perhaps it’s even more fundamental to say that culture also changes climate. In our modern globalised culture, unquestioned technological ‘progress’, unimpeded economic growth and accelerated individualism drive the resource depletion, habitat destruction and fossil fuel consumption that fuel climate change, and species extinction with it.
It’s awareness of these links, of the almost supernatural status we grant to what are actually quite recent assumptions about progress and growth – and to the mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ – that drives a lot of activism and attempts to decolonise our culture.
This activism asserts that, yes actually, there are alternatives, and we need them.
What led you to undertake this project? Have you been involved in any forerunners?
Most of my earlier environmental career involved working with businesses, public bodies and NGOs in local, regional and national programmes to improve their use of energy and resources and reduce waste and pollution. More recently, it also focused on how they take into account what impacts climate change will have on society in two or three decades.
But the longer I focused on that, the more I felt something fundamental was missing in how we talk about climate change and we wouldn’t achieve much change without it: imagination.
Very few people really feel how extensive and rapid environmental destruction has been, what the acceleration looks like and how what lies ahead is far more perilous.
It’s called shifting baseline syndrome: essentially, we all get used to the conditions we inherit. The new, degraded environment becomes ‘normal’, and we fail to see that what looks natural, stable and manageable is in fact unbalanced, accelerating, in crisis.
Our imaginations have become insulated and we need greater creativity to help us see what’s happening, what the alternatives are, and to work on them.
I don’t mean it’s the job of art or artists to ‘explain’ the climate crisis. It’s not about using art to translate science so people ‘get it’, about creating better policies and laws or nudging behaviour change.
It’s simply about finding ways to pay attention to what’s going on, to the voices we don’t normally hear (human and non-human), to whatever creativity others are bringing to it, and the creativity we can bring ourselves.
It’s about possibility – having conversations and then finding better ways to do things, and better things to do, because of those conversations.
I was fortunate to be asked to help TippingPoint organise their last four events. That charity did great work bringing together artists of all kinds, at all stages of their development, with climate change experts from sciences, social sciences and humanities. It created space for conversation, inspiration and collaboration.
There are other organisations too, such as art.earth, whose work inspired me to set up ClimateCultures.
Partly, I wanted to take what those gatherings offer artists for a few days a year and complement it by opening up a space between those events. Scientists have their climate networks and forums – artists and curators less so. And I want it to be a space for original work by artists and others, not just circulating what already exists: to grow the content and the conversation.
What have been the most memorable artistic moments for you in the course of this work?
Every artist’s post I publish on ClimateCultures feels memorable to me!
Each contributor writes about three objects that speak to them about some aspect of the past, the present and a possible future, as we begin to realise how our species (led by the rich, industrialised nations and the well-off) has shifted the planetary systems all species depend on.
Each artist has brought something new to that conversation – not just their objects, but the meanings and emotional significance they hold.
Our focus at Commonweal is on nonviolence. How would you define violence and nonviolence in the context of climate disruption and climate activism?
That’s a great question.
I think the most fundamental shift in perception we can make – one we need right now – is that climate disruption is violence.
The Anthropocene is violence. It’s violence we do to ourselves, to people all over the planet, to the other species we live alongside or far removed from, and to the future.
And, of course, that violence and its causes and impacts are very unevenly distributed. Normal, everyday acts (travelling, shopping, surfing the web, this interview) only happen through the vast, complex infrastructures exploiting minerals, metals, fossil fuels, petrochemicals, habitats, animals and other humans.
These systems circulate the ‘goods’ in some directions and the ‘bads’ in others – including the violence of pollution, destruction and poverty. These circulations underpin the standard of living for the lucky few (me included).
Hence the activism and the need for activism.
But I’d add that there are no blueprints. If we think we have a neat solution to the climate crisis (and everyone has a different solution), then we clearly haven’t understood the situation.
Climate change isn’t simply a ‘problem’ waiting for a solution. It’s a predicament we have to find ways of addressing, of caring about. Ways: plural, unfinished, messy. Coming back to art, imagination and creativity again…
Unfortunately, in this context, nonviolence is harder for me to define and I’d be interested in what your readers have to say. I’m not talking here about the very direct (though often hidden) violence done by corporations, governments, individuals to advance their interests; or of the direct nonviolence of communities, NGOs and individuals seeking to expose and oppose those.
What I’m asking is: if even our most innocent and altruistic actions imply some level of violence arising through the systems we rely on, then we certainly need more and better ways to reduce those flows of harm, oppose the causes, mitigate the suffering and care for our place in the system, but what is nonviolence at its core?
In that context, nonviolence seems a very tough thing to define – and I don’t have a good answer. Let me have yours!
You’re also involved with Finding Blake, a project that focuses on William Blake’s legacy and its relevance today. Please tell us more!
I love that project! It’s the brainchild of James Murray-White, a filmmaker I met through TippingPoint and an active supporter of ClimateCultures.
I’ve always been gripped by William Blake’s art and the way he influences our culture – although he was largely unrecognised at the time he died.
But I’ve never really understood exactly where he was coming from. He had some very interesting views, let’s say, but inevitably they’re not as easy (for me) to grasp as his art.
So when James said he was crowdfunding this project, I wanted to get involved – mainly through setting up the website and editing the blog contributions. Very crafty really, because this exposes me to lots of Blakean content that’s new to me, helping me get a fuller picture of this visionary, poet, artist!
There’s an important link for me to ClimateCultures, because Blake fought against what he called ‘singular vision’ and in favour of an expanded way of perceiving the world. For him, imagination was key.
Science has made wonderful advances in how we understand the world, giving us great tools to improve how we live within it. I’m no anti-science discontent – I spent four years studying to (not) become an astronomer, and many more re-employing that fascination with science in environmental work.
But the simplistic, singular vision of reductionism is a big part of the predicament we’ve backed ourselves into.
We need a radically expanded vision to help us find better ways forward.
And Finding Blake – although not about climate change, environment or any other single topic – aims to help us imagine ourselves through more Blakean eyes, and reimagine what this 18th– and 19th-century radical offers a 21st-century culture.
Find out more
Commonwealis an education organisation that aims to inspire, inform and connect ordinary people who have had enough of violence. Commonweal, founded by a single activist in the 1950s, focuses on the following areas and the connections between them: methods of nonviolent action; personal change; equalities; regenerative living; peace and peace-keeping; and political and economic alternatives. You can find out more at their site and on Facebook and Twitter.
Sally Moss is an editor and writer and also, currently, Commonweal’s freelance Social Media and Website Project Coordinator. She has previously started conversations about the Anthropocene and regenerative living using street theatre and dramatic monologues and by running a series of Permaculture Surgeries. Together with Zero Carbon Liverpool and improvised theatre company Impropriety, and inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon training, she is currently exploring other creative ways of challenging high-carbon habits.
TippingPoint, created in 2005, was a charity connecting the worlds of the arts and climate science. Its twelve-year programme of major events led to conversations, collaborations and new commissions in writing, performance and other arts. In 2017, TippingPoint became part of the wider programme of Julie’s Bicycle, where TippingPoint’s founder remains on the advisory group.
art.earthis a family of artists and organisations focusing on contemporary art and ecology, the environment and the natural world. art.earth produces events, conducts research and works with others to make new projects happen. ‘We’re here because we believe strongly that art has a role to play, and that artists have a responsibility to pose questions and to worry about the way we live in and on our world.
It's a great pleasure to welcome new Member Wallace Heim with her first post for ClimateCultures. Wallace - a researcher and writer on performance and ecology - recently completed 'the sea cannot be depleted', her online project exploring the military exploitation of the Solway Firth. Here, she shares her reflections on the inspiration behind this powerful project and her creative process.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
Outrage is compelling. It moves you. It flares around an event, lining up adversaries as it draws temporary certainties from the flux of life.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Estuary to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘customer’. The firings began in the 1980s, from the Scottish side, with the last firings in 2011 or 2013. The MOD justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’. Attempts to retrieve the shells have failed. Their locations are unknown.
Responses to this news slide easily into anger for the injustice of these firings and shock at their stupidity, alongside a desire for accountability or reparations by the military, which will not and cannot be met. But what happens when the clarity of outrage, and its certainties, get mixed up with everyday life? When they somehow bind with a place, when they merge and dissolve into it, like the radiating materials drifting in the Irish seas?
“No brink of the end of humanity was gazed over. It barely made the news … Thousands of years pissing in the sea with everything we can’t digest, all the rancid debris that we could throw in there, all of it, and now this … The military got it the wrong way around. They didn’t place the uranium. No. They placed this estuary. They made it into their place. They made it into their military nuclear sea," the Man says.
Sensing the insensible
‘the sea cannot be depleted’ is an online project, composed of three parts: a spoken word and sound piece for three voices, accompanied by essays and by documentation about the firings and the effects of Depleted Uranium. The sound piece is fictive, based on interviews and research. In it, a Man speaks from the Scottish side of the estuary, the firth, an area of cliffs, bays, granite and farms. A Woman speaks from the English side, flat lands of ancient peat, grasses and farms, around the headland from the civil-military nuclear industries of West Cumbria. And a Diver speaks as she enters the night sea:
“On the edge here, soft sand, bird tracks and worm casts and the plish of water on my bed-bare feet. More salt than fresh. Read the surface for danger. Go in, between heartbeats, mine and the sea’s … Tentacles brush my legs. Wrapping me in the softness of their sucking, jelly skins. They are curious about me. Me. Am I food? … Drifts of something cloud my eyes. Plankton wandering in from far seas. I swim in sex and food and sea talk.”
The form of the piece was shaped by my need to ‘hear’ the radiation, to have it enter somehow directly into the human ear. And by the negotiations of outrage and conflict that were needed in order to understand and express something of the turbulence of unknowable consequences and the transfiguration of uranium let loose in the continual, mixing tidal forces of an estuary.
Radiation cannot be heard, smelled or touched, but is known through the rattled clicks of the technologies that measure it and make it perceptible to humans. Those sounds are too familiar. I wanted to hear it and to represent it through the human voice, through its vibrations and resonances as well as through the articulations about the effects of knowing what has been buried. The music by Pippa Murphy, too, does not use conventional ‘nuclear’ sounds, but creates a melodic line, that holds, falls apart, dissolves, and reforms.
Nuclear issues are stark and divisive. My certainties are reasoned, ethical and emotive: I find these military actions unjustifiable, expressive of hubris and embedded in a global economy of harm. I had to relate those certainties to the government position which supports the use of Depleted Uranium, and to the scientific reports available, both by independent researchers and the military. The latest find that ‘uncertainty’ characterises what is possible to definitively measure; no one ‘knows’.
Against the against
I did not want to set out adversarial arguments between conflicting sides, as if that was a kind of balance or a reliable process towards truth. Nor did I want to hone the subject matter into something more solidly activist. Rather, for the Man and the Woman who reflect on their relation to the sea and the firings, I wanted to keep to the outrage, but as it is compromised and embedded in everyday life.
The action in theatre, by historical conventions, moves with the forces of adversarial human conflict; two sides, with variations. But theatre and performance have, for the past decades, developed other dramaturgical strategies, broadly categorised as the postdramatic, for creating flow, mood, character and vibrancy. The ‘two-sides’ device has seeped away from some performance practices as it doesn’t adequately allow for a genuine expression of a situation or condition. At the same time, in ecological thinking, the entwining of human conflicts with environments, waters, lands, other living beings, or perceptions of nature – are complicating the order offered by adversarial conflict and requiring other ways to comprehend and address what is a condition of life, one that is pervasive, intractable, characterised by uncertainty and a lack of lasting solutions.
The firings were a rehearsal for war and were hostile fire on a home sea. How can one understand the slow corrosion that endures? What does it mean for a place, a people, to cohere with the unseen objects of war? How do you make a life with, or disavow, the symptoms of the civil-military nuclear complex? How does the knowable coalesce with the not-knowable?
“How do you keep safe? The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured seaweed and crabs and grit and urine. What they forgot was the sea. They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women. It’s probably all right. It has to be. We have to live as if it was. The swells of silences, they hold us tight … What adds up, what counts on this coast is what keeps the working public paying taxes. That’s what keeps things quiet … The sea will loosen and unravel all that we can’t talk about," the Woman says.
Crossing the threshold
The Diver is a different kind of force, ambivalent between the imaginal and the real. She speaks of her sensed perceptions as she repeatedly dives below the sea surface. She sets out with promise and high delight but stays too long. She passes that threshold when coming back would be possible, making a loose association with the nuclear dream and the impossible scramble to return to a world without its waste.
“My body curls and tumbles. It joins the pock-marked hard things that roll along the bed. We’re a pulse of moving things. Another brush of something like dust. My skin starts to bleach with it. I’m burning, down here with no light, no air … I cool my body in a garden of soft-skinned creatures … Everything moves, the living with the dead. Lives within lives. Our cells are the lenses through which we see our futures. We are all transparent to the longer waters of the sea ... ”
The uranium was pulled by brown hands from hot, dusty places, fabricated and made into rich pieces of tradeable merchandise. The military sent those high-priced shells out over the miles of waiting water. In the instant that they touched the sea surface they were waste. As they bedded into the soft sands, they began their dissolution into sea salts and the human imagination. ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ takes off from what seems like discrete events, but those events are only part of a long arc that has no end.
Find out more
‘the sea cannot be depleted’ was written and produced by Wallace Heim, with music and sound composition by Pippa Murphy and the voices of Camille Marmié (Diver), Vincent Friell (Man) and Lisa Howard (Woman). The project was funded by Future’s Venture Foundation, Manchester.
You can hear the full dramatised audiopiece for ‘the sea cannot be depleted’, and view Wallace’s extensive research journal and other background documents about Depleted Uranium, the MOD’s firings into the Solway Firth and the area itself, at the sea cannot be depleted. And you can explore more of Wallace’s work via her ClimateCultures profile page.
Wallace has also shared a number of references you might like to explore:
Heim, Wallace (2017). ‘Theatre, conflict and nature’ in Performance and Ecology. What Can Theatre Do? Ed. Carl Lavery. London: Routledge. also in: Green Letters. Studies in Ecocriticism. (2016) 20:3. The journal is behind an academic firewall, and the book is exorbitantly priced. Please email me if you would like a pdf of the article: home[at]wallaceheim[dot]com
Each contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects brings its author a gift of a book: one that had an impact on me when I first read it and which I've recently rediscovered on a trip to a charity shop. So here is my review of Jim Crace's imaginative 1988 novel, The Gift of Stones.The book goes to Sarah Dry for her excellent piece on her personal selection of three objects that trace one possible timeline of the Anthropocene. Set at the end of the Stone Age, on the cusp of change that overtook it and accelerated us headlong into a new world, a book could hardly be more relevant to our Age of Human: the Age of Unintended Consequences.
The Gift of Stones is the story of a boy whose entanglement with the shifting world beyond the settled, conservative life of his village turns him into a storyteller. Set at the end of the Stone Age, it’s a parable of unlooked-for consequences as one age morphs into another. And it’s a tribute to the power of story-telling itself: “Salute the liars — they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” Story is a technology.
The narration is shared by the man this boy quickly becomes — when disability causes him to find a novel role as outsider-insider within his industry-fixated village — and his adopted daughter. She casts a wary eye back on his choices as a teller of tall tales, and the way he weaves in spurious detail from the natural world around them to add authenticity to his creations.
“As the bully becomes soldier, and the meany becomes merchant, so the liar becomes bard. Where is the shock in that? … He was never lost for words. He had a name for everything — or invented one. He’d out-hoot an owl, they said … The paradox is this — we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.”
She brings her own outsider’s view of the myopic villagers, who remain unaware of or unconcerned at the chaos on their borders. “My father’s ornateness as a story-teller cannot obscure the one plain truth that needs no hawk for decoration — that the village was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft. It made people purposeful, wealthy, strong” — and blind to change.
Truth that offers no escape
This is a society of flint diggers, shapers, traders. Stone is the material basis of their culture, stones are what they fashion:
“What they sought was the undisturbed floorstone of flint at depths unknown to worms. This was the act that underpinned the village … Making flints, that’s all they knew. That’s what gave them heart. That was the ritual that kept them going, that filled their time, that stocked their larders, that gave them pride … It made them feel, We do exist, We are important even, We count. They were the stoneys, heart and mind. They blindly fashioned flints [as] gulls laid top-heavy eggs and the winds blew off the sea. That’s how the world was made and never pause for thought. It wasn’t made for boys with stumps.”
The boy — hardly any of the main characters are named — has been attacked by outsiders looking for flint weapons they’ve no intention of bartering for. The villagers must amputate his damaged arm. Ironically, although these craftsmen can fashion the sharpest blades for the job, none of them is able to actually wield the knife on the boy, and this task is left to the attackers — penance for their crime. But the diggers and makers have no use for a one-armed boy so, having been saved by the act that renders him valueless to them, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders far and wide, and when he sees a ship from cliffs a day’s walk away, his storytelling takes off. “What could I say to make it sound attractive? They wanted something crafted and well turned … The truth would never do. It was too fragile and too glum. It offered no escape … Already, in my mind, I knew the story I could tell that night.”
Through his stories — some true, some invented, most somewhere in between — he brings to the stoneys more of the outside world than they glimpse from their routine trading, but it remains a conservative, closed society. All their food comes in barter, making them completely dependent on the price their flint can fetch. The boy’s stories are entertainments for them, just that. His life on the margins of village life — much of it spent beyond its borders — is mostly a solitary one, and his physical and imaginative wanderings bring self-awareness and an awareness of what society means.
“People on their own do foolish things. They don’t know when to stop. They don’t know how. Now you understand why people live in villages, sniffing at their neighbours’ cooking and their conversations. They fear themselves and what would happen if the leash were cut and they were all alone…”
He travels further, from the cliffs to a saltland heath “sodden and yellowed by the winter … sweating in the sun. It smelled like rotten fruit, like beer, like cow’s breath. The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh.” There, he encounters a woman living alone with her daughter and her dog, and so discovers the smallest of communities, but one that needs more of him than simple entertainment saved for when the day’s real work is done:
“She hadn’t cared about my arm. Or knapping flints. Or stone. She’d said, Do this, Do that. Make sure the pot is safe. Here, take the child. And hold the dog. Can’t you kill a chicken? Could you walk down — take this bag — and pull some samphire roots? Before, I’d only ever idly stared through doors to watch the workers shaping stone, to smell their smells, to watch their lives while waiting for the Scram, Get out, We’ve work to do.”
King of the wild world
Further off, other communities make their living through what they create from the land; when our storyteller meets a group of farmers come to camp on the edge of the heath, he hears a new story from them, “of a farming year that was rhythmic as a drum.”
“The first note in the spring was emmer wheat. Then six-row corn. Then beans. Then flax, the last to bed, the hater of the frost. The goats did well all year on fodder mulched from leaves. Their milk and cheese were said to taste of elm or ash depending on the forest where they fed. In autumn there were unearned gifts in mushrooms, nuts and fruit. In winter there were bacon sides and apples wrinkled like a widow’s cheek, and grain from rat-free, stilted stacks.”
It soon becomes clear that the reason these men are on the heath is to exact revenge on flocks of wild geese that have gathered there. “They’d harvested the field, these airborne slugs,” and now the farmers would “show the wild world who was king by wiping out all geese.”
And so, despite its possibilities of plenty, this farming life is seemingly more precarious than an existence built on the steady need for stone tools and weapons, lived at one remove from raising your own food from unpredictable nature. Farming involves a war on the wild world, and the storyteller can spot the farmers’ false confidence in humans’ ultimate power. “If they’d stayed … they would’ve seen who was king of that wild world. When everybody’s dead, there’ll still be crabs and flies and carcass shrubs and weeds to strip and clothe the world.” (And, showing his native prejudice, he adds: “There’ll still be stone.”)
For his widowed heathland companion, however, the geese are an intimate connection between the wild and the human:
“… geese are people who have died. They say my husband and my boys are geese.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve also heard them say that geese bring babies, that geese bring dreams, that geese are blessings to the poor. I’ve heard it all. Myself, I know the truth. I’ve seen it every year. The geese bring summer and take away the frosts. You’ll see.’”
And it’s connections such as these that the storyteller takes back to his stoney community, crafting his gifts of story.
“There was the story of the talking goose. It was snow-white except for a golden bill and feet. It said . . . and here my father could devise a goose-borne message that would tease whatever audience he had assembled at his feet. There was the story of the woman and her magic dog. They lived inside a house made out of hair. The dog could cook and stitch and start a fire. The woman hunted rabbits with her mouth. There was the story of the boy with the gift of flames. He could spit fire. Those people who stayed close to him need never fear the cold.”
Stones, chaos and coma
The storyteller’s experiences beyond the village teach him that “the world was cut in two — one for chaos, one for coma … All the outside world required was the liberty to pound and crush, to hammer and to bruise … It didn’t matter if the blows were rained on geese or huts or dogs or boys, so long as there were blows and careless brawls and sudden ghosts of hardship to blow good fortune down.” But the villagers remain complacent. Within their coma, they cannot imagine an end to the simple laws of tradition and economics that their lives are built on, are completely wedded to.
“This was the lesson they had learned whenever trade had slackened in the past: the outside world was never free from stone. There was no sickling of the corn, no scraping hides, no fishing, hunting, wars, no cutting flesh, no knives, no fires, except for stone and stoneys. Without the stoneys, men would have to fight with sticks. And what would women use to cut the cord when children came? Their teeth? What next? Were people just as mean as wolves?”
Eventually, the outside world — the world of chaos — reaches inside the borders of the village. But it’s a different kind of emergency that befalls the stoneys than the one that cost their boy one arm and their village one useful worker. Rather than simply the violence of weapons, of shaped stone turned back upon the stone shapers, this is an end to stone itself: stone as a subtle technology and staple trade. An end which even the storyteller failed to foresee (“There’ll still be stone”). Human ingenuity can always turn to other materials, fashioning other economies, and the war on the wild can take another turn, tightening as it goes and leaving peoples and places ruined in its wake. All of which is raw material for the storyteller when he spies more ships and men “armed with weapons that were gleaming in the oddest way. The stones that made them were as light as leaves; their arrows sped like swallows. Compared, our arrows were like pigeons, plump and clumsy in the air.”
No one will be wanting arrows like pigeons now that ones like swallows can be had, “this sharp and shiny leaf, this bronze.” And it’s this — more than merely the more efficient violence that this new thing, metal, unleashes — that heralds the end of the stoneys’ world, leaving them “as helpless as a beetle on its back.”
The gift of stones is the gift of all technology, as double-edged as the new bronze swords that will sweep away the age of stone. The gift of stories is also two-faced, with lies and truth intertwined. A novel that leaves to one side the prehistoric beliefs and sites — the megalithic monuments and the mysteries of their ritual uses which so fascinate us looking back and seem (falsely) to separate us from them — The Gift of Stones focuses on the daily ritual of precarious living off the land, living with neighbours and outsiders, centres and margins, and with landscape and nature. Stories that we might come to remember.
The storyteller looks back at his home:
“I knew no sight more sad than that — the sight of that small, kempt place, its walls as ordered and as uniform as ribs laid bare, its life as timorous, fettered and discreet as that enjoyed by barnacles on stone. And all around and all beyond, in blues and greys and greens, and fading far away into the whites of distance and of sky, was all the outside world. It seemed as if the outside world was like a mist and the mist was closing in. And all our world was shrinking, breath by breath. Someone, something, was hovering between our village and the sun.”
Find out more
The Gift of Stones — Jim Crace’s second novel — was first published in 1988 and is published by Pan Macmillan.
In 2015, North Country Theatres toured an adaptation of The Gift of Stones. The Director, Nobby Dimon, said in the production programme that the novel “appealed to me because it is about the origins of storytelling and by extension the origins of theatre, because its language has a poetry which is not found often in contemporary fiction and because its remote setting is both strange yet recognisable. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there, but Crace reminds us that even our remote ancestors share intellect and feelings with us.”
In part 1 of this two-parter, writer Mary Woodbury outlined some of the common ground that helps 'define' eco-fiction: "not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive ... Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space." In this concluding part, Mary looks at how this super-genre has grown and diversified in recent years. And her own story returns to her family trip to Ireland, where we began part 1.
You can read part 1 of A History of Eco-fiction here.
The Canopy Expands
Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the New York Times, Wai Chee Dimock stated in There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea,
“This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.”
The world seems less and less hopeful. So many crises exist now that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them. We are reminded in the news, every moment and every day, of school shootings, shaky politics, poverty, starvation, refugee crises, murder, racism, rape, sexual harassment, and hate. Authors take these issues into consideration when building stories, and some of the biggest crises (which don’t necessarily make their way into the news: climate change, extinction, and dwindling wilderness and biodiversity) are subjects making their way into plots, world-building, and tension among characters. We haven’t seen anything like our world before. We imagine the wilderness so that we can hang onto what’s left. We want to write about our world before its best parts are gone. In fiction, there is desperation to cling to unlogged forests, clean oceans, sparkling rivers, vast deserts, and even just backyard ecosystems that mesmerize us. I have sat at a lake in the mountains of British Columbia watching minnows for hours, amazed.
I run a monthly spotlight on authors who explore climate change in fiction, and have had many interesting discussions. One was with John Atcheson, who stated:
“I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.”
Here is the gist: fiction plays an important part in helping readers grasp large concepts that are simply numbers and bytes in the news. Good storytelling, which is not didactic, is an art form that allows the reader to not just escape but reflect, care, and cope. Stephen Siperstein, who contributed poems to Winds of Change, an anthology of stories about climate change that I published in 2015, said that many do not give climate change a thought and that there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without us acting, things will take care of themselves). According to Stephen, “This is the ‘new normal’ of our cognitive and affective lives, and for us to figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.” Bill McKibben preceded this idea in Grist, back in April 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art.”
A short note on Dystopia and Utopia
“Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.
Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of Utopia
Dystopian literature may be hopeful, and utopian literature may present problems it doesn’t imagine.
I have noted often that eco-fiction stories are not just frightening but may offer hope. Often we are the antagonist, but redemption transforms us into the protagonist. We can do good together, even in times of crisis. Despite the dismal forecast for how climate change will continue to affect us and all other species on the planet, the strongest stories seem to happen when we “feed the good wolf” — when we look up, face our mistakes, apologize for them, and fix them … when we do what’s right. And what’s right, in this case, is also becoming what’s cool!
The concept of solarpunk is also a positive for literature; it’s not just a fiction genre but a hopeful aesthetic. I interviewed one of its stewards, Adam Flynn, who said:
“As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently).”
‘Wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking’
Ecologically oriented fiction is growing, and it’s entirely organic. Nobody says “hey, here’s a cool genre — write in it!” That’s not how fiction works. What is happening is that people naturally worry about the state of our world, and our future — just like people have been doing from the beginning of time — and some people tell stories about these things. When these things include an exploration of ecological systems around us, and how we relate to them, eco-literature is born and also is evolving with the shaky times. Running eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of books posted at the site, and while it is not exhaustive, almost 600 books are listed. The project is nearing its fifth birthday (on August 13th, 2018), and it’s evident that the number of fiction writers who fashion tales from stark realities is growing. This site has turned into a lifetime project, and in continuing with this study, I have grown fond of the diversity of storytelling within eco-fiction — it’s the most important thing to me, because the authors are all unique with their life experiences. They draw from different places, languages, and cultures, enriching this body of literature with fresh voices.
I always think back on Wai Chee Dimock’s words on how eco-fiction is evolving: wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking. This description is so apt. Authors are writing, and thus also documenting, the story of how humans evolve in what seems to be a mass extinction. The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity. Various modes of literature place ourselves in this epoch, which is full of sorrow, ghosts, dwindling biodiversity, plastic oceans, and death. It’s also full of embracing the wild within us. I chatted with the wise poet Lorna Crozier, who remarked:
“If we’re lucky enough to get into the wilderness, our bodies and our spirits crackle with life. Our legs on a trail feel stronger. They become animal again. Our sense of smell is honed. Raven speaks to us in one of the 200 dialects ornithologists have been able to measure. When a grizzly inhales my scent, I live for a moment inside his body, inside his mind. How can I not be changed? To get inside myself in a deep and meaningful way, where I might, if I’m lucky, find words to say what can’t be said, I have to get outside. I have to be larger than myself. Rain-drenched, I have to breathe in the wolf, the grizzly, breathe in the wild beauty of the world. And I have to figure out what to do to protect it — to stop all those human things that are causing such harm. The most optimistic part of me hopes the poems are one small way to do that.”
And the most optimistic part of me hopes that fiction will accomplish this.
Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer’s body of new weird fiction novels that are perfect examples of wild and breathtaking storytelling. I referenced his work in my three-part series at SFFWorld.com, Exploring the Ecological Weird. When I talked with Jeff about the Southern Reach Trilogy, he said:
“I’ve always explored weird real-life biology in my fiction, especially in the context of fungi, which often seems alien in its details. These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal — North Florida wilderness — and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.”
As we walk along the heavy Fleet Streets of our time — as W B Yeats did in his day, thinking of The Lake Isle of Innisfree — it’s not enough to dream about nine bean rows, linnet’s wings, a bee-hive, and a small cabin made of wattles and clay; though there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are on the global Fleet Street now, one that is being extinguished. Authors are telling our story, and in some way it’s an old story, but in many ways it’s a new one, now that the Anthropocene has been recognized.
The reason we went to Ireland is because my mother’s relatives came from there long ago, and it was her dream to visit the country someday. Dad, unfortunately, had early onset Parkinson’s disease, and he retired early and never was able to travel far. After he died, I relied on my mother more and more for her old mountain ways and advice (she grew up in the Appalachian hills with parents who lived off the land), and my husband and I wanted to take her on a lifelong dream trip to her ancestor’s homeland, a place she had dreamed of visiting since a child.
I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since we visited. I see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns. I see the big ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but the closer the boat got to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere. I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear the cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong North Atlantic winds. No matter where we go there are verdant fields and groves of trees and cows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a faerie may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like the field of literature called eco-fiction.
Find out more
You can read part 1 of a History of Eco-fiction here.
You can find out more about the Holocene Extinction — also known as “the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction … the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity” — in this Wikipedia article.
You can also read author David Thorpe’s ClimateCultures posts on utopian and dystopian fictions via his profile page in our Members Directory.