In the Path of Its Beam

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two paths to the more-than-human

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

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

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

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

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

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

A monster in a mason jar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more

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

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

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

 

Signals from the Edge #1

— approx reading time: 7 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pale.Blue

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

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

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

Into Whose Consciousness We Raise Ourselves.

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What the Bee Sees

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

Our latest offering sees the welcome return of artist Jennifer Leach. Throughout 2017, Jennifer led the vision and creation of Reading's Festival of the Dark and its micro-festival Dazzle, helping us navigate the Celtic cycle of the year and explore the energies of the dark in its many forms. What if the world were other? Stretching imagination and shifting vision is a key to ‘waking up us all’ and forms the bedrock of Jennifer’s own work; here, she shares the first of two Dazzle stories she told in the back room of a Reading pub…
Apis mellifera flying
Photograph: Muhammad Mahdi Karim © 2009
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

This story is about bees, and honey, and hexagons. I am personally convinced that the very special nature of the hexagon is a key to the tale, and so here I shall begin. A hexagon, as I’m sure many of you will know, is a remarkable figure, with six identical sides, each one of which contributes to one of six indistinguishable equilateral triangles, each with three interchangeable angles of 60o; and with all six triangles converging on the one central point at the hexagon’s heart. If the hexagon’s neighbours are of the same dimensions, they can fit snug alongside, above, below one another, ad infinitum; a community of hexagons can be built by a child, so simple is it. Indeed a magical shape, and quite possibly it is the mystical nature of it that led to a quite extraordinary discovery about bees.

The tale begins at Reading University which, as some of you may be aware, has one of the most advanced robotics research departments in the world. Furthermore, its agricultural department has a research unit that focuses on bees. Ten years ago, these two departments came together with a shared desire to colonise a bee’s vision, to see – first hand – what a bee sees. I was lucky enough to know one of the researchers, from whom I received directly the following account.

To understand the science, it is important to appreciate the enormously complex make up of an apiarian eye. Altogether a bee has five eyes: two are a little like headlights, illuminating the bee’s path quite broadly; the remaining three filter light to create a great sensitivity of vision. Each of these eyes is made up of thousands of small hexagonal units called ommatidia. To see as a bee sees is no mean feat. As you might imagine, it was a work of engineering genius to create a small bee-sized helmet with five robotic eyes that could be clipped onto the head of a bee. It took nine years to develop, and was first ready for testing late last year. You might like to picture this helmet as akin to sunglasses, fitting over the bee’s own eyes yet not disturbing its sight. On 11th November 2017, in the research gardens of the agricultural department of Reading University, It was fitted to a bee we will call Bee A. As opposed to Bee B and Bee C who come later in the story. Remotely connected to Bee A’s cap was a commensurate cap known as the Bee Cap, which a designated researcher in the laboratory wore; the two were remotely connected. What this combination of devices allowed, in short, was for the researchers to share the vision of a bee. Or, as it turned out, to share specifically the vision of Bee A.

So, after recovering from its groggy little operation, Bee A went buzzing off on its normal busy business, as only a bee can do. After dancing around a few yellow flowers in the garden, sucking up nectar, unintentionally pollinating the neighbouring flowers at the same time, it flew off towards the hive. The researchers noted that it tends to see blues and yellows, and can also see the ultra-violet light that our human eyes cannot pick up. So far so good, confirming already known facts about the bee and its eyesight.

Next, Bee A flew into one of the hexagonal cells within the hive and this was exciting. Researchers had never previously had the privilege of viewing the inside of a hive cell through a bee’s own eyes. The light inside these cells is glowing and golden, rich and mellow as honey. The little bee fits pretty snugly inside, deposits its nectar, and works for a while producing enzymes to begin the honeyfication process. The expectation was, obviously, that it would then exit the cell the same way it came in and repeat the entire process. What happened next, however, was revelatory. And here I must ask you please for total confidentiality; this research is revolutionary, as yet unpublished, and must go no further than this website.

Instead of flying out the way it had come in, Bee A flew out the back of the cell. Unexpected perhaps, but here was the seismic shock: as it exited, the robotics researcher experienced a mind-bending, body-altering episode that has left him hospitalised. Electronically connected as he was through his Bee Cap to Bee A’s robotic eyes, he suffered a fragmentation of vision, a severe jarring of his eyeballs; he reported that every atom in his body seemed to condense into his heart area, and for around one second he was as dense and leaden as a lodestar. As he described it, ‘I felt as if the entire Universe had imploded momentarily within my own body.’

Incredible and absurd as it seems, scientists believe that Bee A had entered a pin-sized Black Hole, and even more incredibly and absurdly, passed through it unscathed. Whilst medical staff attended the unfortunate researcher, his colleague grabbed the Bee Cap, reestablishing connection with Bee A.

What she saw almost blew her mind. She was out in dark space aglow with a violet light that can only be described as celestial. Stars did not stud the heavens, they peppered it, millions upon millions of violet swirling stars moving in a diaphanous mist. There are no words for it. Literally no words. It is not a sight that belongs to our universe. And Bee A’s behaviour in this universe was not as on Earth. Its body stretched and elongated so that it became serpentine, streaming along on wings that needed to do no work. It floated, as if on an ocean, carried on an invisible tide that drew it along with directed energy. As it travelled, it appeared to be gathering nectar in its regular fashion. And the researcher noticed that its vision too had altered. Each ommatidium began to spin clockwise, so that the bee’s sight became a kaleidoscope of purple spinning hexagons. After a few seconds, she pulled the Bee Cap from her head, was violently sick, and passed out. By the time she came to a few minutes later, Bee A was back in its cell, and had deposited its otherworldly gathering of nectar.

On completing this task, the bee then fell into what seemed to be a trance. It lay so for several minutes. The robotic cap indicated that the bee was experiencing REM sleep, just as a human would. And then – extraordinarily – whilst still in this state of sleep, it flew out of the front of the cell, and went about its usual busy business in what we shall call, for shorthand’s sake, ‘our world’. As if in a dream.

It goes without saying that the immediate desire by the researchers was to follow up the experiment by trying out the same procedure on what we shall call Bee B. And later Bees C, D, E and so on. Over a period of three weeks they did this, collating the mindblowing evidence that suggests each bee, when it exits the back of its own cell, passes through the same nodal shift as did Bee A but each appears to go into ITS OWN UNIVERSE. (The researchers have learnt, it hardly needs stating, to remove the Bee Cap for the duration of this shift point). No two universes have so far looked alike. Each has its own distinct colour, form of motion, velocity, some are complex, others simple, some light, others more muted. Within its universe, the scale of the bee varies from diminutive to overly significant, and each bee moves about in its own fashion. Some ‘swim’, others roll, one vast bee stood upon its back two legs and walked. Each is, in its own way, utterly wonderful.

In all universes, all bees have one commonality, that of gathering nectar which, after returning back through the nodal shift point to the golden glow of the hive cell, they deliver to the collective. And here is what is, perhaps, most unexpected of all. The researchers at the university have of course closely analysed the bees’ honey, and the evidence is indisputable – no matter which universe the individual bee has collected its nectar from, and no matter by what method, the honey produced back in the hive is exactly the same.

 


Find out more

You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.

Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.

“Water’s Rising, at Their Ankles Now…”

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

For our latest Members' Post, we see James Murray-White return to ClimateCultures fresh from a trip to Hull, City of Culture 2017. James brings us his review of the remarkable and immersive performance of 'FLOOD', a production "stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world."

This past weekend I happened to be in Hull, City of Culture 2017, and stumbled upon an extraordinary multi-media and immersive piece of theatre about climate change and the human condition. ‘FLOOD’ is a year-long project, written by James Phillips and produced by Slung Low, a theatre company based in Leeds that ‘specialise in making unlikely, original and ambitious adventures for audiences.’ And they excelled with this production, told in a dock on the edge of Hull.

Part climate change drama, part biblical parable of human foibles and virtues and community self-determination, and chiefly a story of humanity telling its story in and about a “city by the sea”, ‘FLOOD’ is a captivating, urgent, and sometimes mesmerising drama, told in the water it tells of. 

‘FLOOD’ Omnibus opening night Photograph: James Phillips © 2017 http://flood.hull2017.co.uk/flood-omnibus-opening-night/_mj47736/

Setting it and performing it in the dock – with the audience clustered round the railings looking down into it and the action happening on a floating set tied together and sometimes coming apart, with little boats navigating to and from them, and even actors in the salty brine, “near drownded” – makes this a literally immersive piece, engaging the audience’s senses while we huddled and shivered as one in awe, and a lot of sadness.

“A drowned girl but….”

The drama takes us into several characters’ experiences of sudden, violent change. It’s held by a central character, who we come to know as Gloriana. We first meet her as she’s ferried into dock by a fisherman and his son, telling of “one net empty of all fish. In it, one hundred life jackets. Orange like those migrants leave on beaches. One hundred life jackets and a girl. Curled pale naked, just bandages on hands. A drowned girl but….”

Gloriana is very much living flesh and blood, but after her ordeal has resurrected into a reflection back upon each characters’ motivation and input into life. She’s received by Jack, an officer in a detention centre, and their lives become interlinked. Gloriana meets Johanna in the centre, described as an Iraqi Christian; and then Natasha – former Overseas Minister and now Lady Mayor – and her daughter Kathryn. These and the fisherman and his son Sam all hold the drama fast and furiously, bound to each other as water to land, and sea to sky, as humans caught in trauma, seeking salvation.

Slung Low’s Flood Part Two: Abundance By James Phillips Gets Underway Image: Hu17.net © 2017 http://www.hu17.net/2017/04/13/slung-lows-flood-part-two-abundance-by-james-phillips-gets-underway/

The drama reaches into our current migrant crisis, and the ex-Minister’s role is partly to provide an exploration of guilt and political responsibility around this issue. This theatre piece took place in a city covered in statues to its former ‘great and the good’, from Ferens and Wilberforce to De La Pole, all of whom are honoured but who all might now be seen to be culpable in the light of current political thinking, be it on votes for war, whaling, lack of action on carbon measures, or similar. The presence of a character who has sanctioned wars, who now has the opprobrium of her daughter and protestors outside her house and who takes a role as a leader when the floating islands become a necessity, opens up a whole strand of moral dialogue, guilt, and responsibility. Like writer James Phillips, I’ve also spent time volunteering at the Calais Jungle, where many thousands of refugees have headed in the hope of getting to the UK; once you witness such a place and hear some of the stories about fleeing atrocities, both human and climate-caused, then the full spectrum of humanity gets peeled back, and any response is a response.

A thing worth living for

Once the characters are afloat on the islands, bound together in tents, nailed together with pallets and bodged together as a refuge, then we see three different and distinct camps. The first, led by Johanna, uses faith to hold itself together, even evolves to sending out missionaries in boats to proselytise that faith to other survivors (which then horribly backfires). The second, led by Natasha, is titled Renaissance as a bastion of ‘law and order’, despite the Government in the South falling and power being shown to be nothing other than what we construct it to be. And in the third camp Sam, the fisherman’s son, gains power by violence and control; torture and murder dominate on his island. None of these three options appeal to me – so I would be a lone wolf, snaking between them all in my kayak, bartering fish in exchange for human contact and a little piece of the values that each offers.

Gloriana lives, and is either revered (by Johanna) or feared and hated (by Sam), and tries to reflect back to every character their inner nature; including Kathryn, with whom she falls in love. Her journey as a presumed fleeing migrant, with letters carved into her fingers and signs of torture upon her body, to death in the water, resurrection in the net and then becoming an angel upon the water – and literally sailing off into the rising sun – is the redeemer’s journey. The arc of the entire play is that all we have as humans is love. Faith may sometimes help, and faith will bring troubles upon us, but love will give us something worth living for. An unusual thread of lost love between the fisherman and the Lady Mayor brings an extra complexity that weaves within the narrative.

The night I saw FLOOD was the omnibus event, so we saw part two on the water, were herded to a nearby marquee to watch part three on a screen, then returned to the dock for part four. This helped to engage us further, pulling us together with the bribery of heat and tea and food, reminding us of communality and needs, while the characters were suffering the greatest calamity known to humankind.

‘Thousands Of Life Jackets Laid Out In Parliament Square In Moving Tribute To Refugees’ Image: SWNS news agency © 2016 Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com

“Where we are, we are, and on we must go.”

Part one of this epic had already been screened online, and I understand that part three will be available for a limited time on BBC iPlayer, and clips are on the FLOOD website. So the scope of the production is being mediated both live and online and I hope it reaches a wide audience, as it needs to be seen. Standing watching the drama – encompassing back-projection onto water, water sprayed as rain above the actors, fire on stage, and the constructed encampment-islands amidst the water, as the characters become migrants on the world’s seas – is a visceral experience which will forever bind me to the story and the experiences being told. That is very different to watching anything on a screen, but the two ways of experiencing this drama make for a very powerful and urgent experience.

For me personally, as a graduate from Hull University’s drama department, which I left many years ago to head off into a career in the arts and became disillusioned by a theatre system that seemed dull and even unconscious during the 90’s and noughties, seeing this production in Hull, amidst a vibrant year of culture – stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world – is joyous and so exciting.

The bigger picture, well – where will we go from here? As creatives, mediating dialogues and inquiry across artforms, as leaders, as animals within a system, and as a species afoot in the world? We may be bringing the rains down upon our heads, and there may be individuals or systems we can follow, and there will always be love.

“One dawn sailing far out towards the rising sun.
Where we are we should not be and yet
Where we are, we are, and on we must go,
What new world lay ahead we did not know,
Eyes facing front, vanishing world behind.”
 - FLOOD, by James Phillips

And the last line of stage directions from the play: ‘A little boat disappearing into the light. ‘

Find out more

You can catch up with the FLOOD story and watch videos at its official Hull 2017 site, and with other Hull UK City of Culture 2017 activities.

The BBC’s showing of Part 3 wasn’t available at the time of publishing this post – but it’s the BBC, so it will no doubt be round again before you know it! Check out the episode page on their site.

You can see ‘FLOOD – the story so far’ on YouTube

You can explore some of the issues around sea level rise, coastal change and flooding affecting the Humber region, including Hull, at the EU FloodProBE site.

You can find out about the work of the UNHCR  the UN’s refugee agancy – on climate change and refugees.

Questioning the camps? Space for creative thinking...  

"In FLOOD, the people divide into three camps - faith, law and violence. Snaking your way between these camps and more, belonging to none, what tangible things would you kayak between them to show each a broader way?"  

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link! 

 

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

— approx reading time: 7 minutes

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