On Being Water Beings — “A Return to Water, Rather Than Dust”

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White, in conversation with Veronica Strang about her new book, Water Beings, finds connections with his own work at a time when water is under threat and we need to rebalance our elemental relationship.

2,850 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes

“Water serpent beings’ abilities to be monstrous also traverse scales. They can lurk within the individual psyche and represent the seething inner sea of instincts and emotions, or they can reflect tensions and fluid capacities for disorder at a societal level, such as the chaos represented by war or revolution… At a cosmic level, they can represent apocalyptic events – the Flood, the volcanic eruption, the earthquake, the tsunami.”
— Veronica Strang, Water Beings: From Nature Worship to the Environmental Crisis.

Showing the cover of 'Water Beings, by Veronica Strang (published 2023)
‘Water Beings’ by Veronica Strang (2023)

Water in crisis

Recently I’ve been sensing a disconnect between me and water. I live close to an iconic river, in which I learnt to swim and as a teenager had lucrative summer jobs punting tourists along it. However, the River Cam, like most if not all UK water systems, is heavily polluted, and I know of many local cases of humans and dogs who have been seriously unwell after a dip.

The data for the newly designated bathing status at Sheep’s Green in the Newnham area of Cambridge recenly showed high levels of e-coli and other nasties that have leached down from a sewage pumping station some miles away. In addition, the heavy winter, spring and now summer, rains we are getting in this normally drier part of the land often wash off concrete and create epic floods, with run-off washing into the rivers and through the soil.

I’ve just made a short film about one of East Anglia’s chalk streams, the Newmarket Brook, and I have been learning from geologists and hydrologists about chalk streams’ unique qualities and fragility. This one is in varying states of health. I also helped a friend, Tony Eva, make Pure Clean Water, a film about Hobson’s Conduit, which flows from the springs at Nine Wells, by the hospital, through various colleges and into Cambridge. It is in a perilous condition, continually abstracted and contaminated.

Away from just this one city, the human world is at war, and water gets scarce and used as a threat for those being persecuted and bombarded. We’re in a water crisis and if we are to survive as a species and remain equitable with our ecosystem, our relationship with all the elements must rebalance. Recognising this disconnect is the start, and framing our connection to the sacred and to older knowledges feels like an important way forward. A crucial way forward.

It’s timely then to discover Veronica Strang’s body of work, and engage with the growing movement towards river/nature rights. The vast body of human creativity around water and water beings comes to the fore in her book, which really resonates and brings joy to this jaded mind. If many of us unite around care for water and becoming water guardians, from a variety of faith beliefs, political and ecological opinions and none, our human power can make a real difference.

I’ve recently been a participant in two University of Cambridge conferences on water-human relationships where Veronica delivered keynote lectures. Her research straddles anthropology, archaeology, theology, philosophy and more — ranging across human history, our experience with and belief in beings that inhabit watery realms, and our cultural imaginations and psychological systems.

Water Beings – from Nature Worship to the Environmental Crisis is a very deep dive into watery worlds inhabited by a vast array of extraordinary more-than-human beings, and into our imaginative nature as an ancient species. Every society has developed complex and intricate beliefs and knowledges around water beings and their values, roles and responsibilities, including our projections on them as either benign or monstrous. Living alongside them, dreaming of them or even being devoured by them, has given humans a sense of fear, worship, adoration, and veneration. Perhaps now is the time to fully merge our substantive presence on the earth with water creatures?

Water Beings - showing 'Muisca tunjos', votive offerings to ancestral serpents believed to inhabit Lake Guatavita, Colombia, 10th–16th century CE, gold.
Muisca tunjos, votive offerings to ancestral serpents believed to inhabit Lake Guatavita, Colombia, 10th–16th century CE, gold.

A confluence of knowledge and imagination

While grounded in academic scholarship, Water Beings reads like a flowing chronology of connectivity, an important congregation of how the planet’s climate and delicate ecosystems and the human creative impetus to respond all come together. Ultimately, this work is about narrative, fact and fiction: stories and images of water beings are part of our human construct, and now is a time to acknowledge and honour them. What might they mean? What might they anticipate?

The book’s ten chapters categorise types of water entities — irrigating beings, supreme beings, demonised beings, reformed and transformational beings and more — and frame our ways into their study. A key final chapter then sharply focuses on the now, why we are in this condition of crisis and dis-connection, and ways we might return to a closer, healthier framing. I’ll return to that important chapter.

Water Beings - Showing Nyai Blorong, Goddess of the South Sea, Java, before 1928: Unknown artist, watercolour on paper.
Unknown artist, Nyai Blorong, Goddess of the South Sea, Java, before 1928, watercolour on paper.

I was particularly delighted to discover in chapter 8, ‘Supreme Beings’ — as Strang moves forward with her story, societies become urbanised and with that comes monotheistic faith structures and practices — an image from William Blake, ‘Moses erecting the brazen serpent’.

This chimes with an ongoing absorption into Blake’s prophetic work I have through the Finding Blake project, a fascination with his fourfold vision. Here, in an underwater realm, serpents are coiling around humans, literally squeezing the life out of corrupt sinners, while Moses stands watching upwards to the head of the main water serpent. Here is an image of the entwining of watery beings which has become the symbol of medicine and healing: caduceus.

Showing William Blake, Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent (Nehushtan), c. 1800–1803, pen and watercolour on paper.
William Blake, Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent (Nehushtan), c. 1800–1803, pen and watercolour on paper.

Water is rare in Blake’s paintings, and where it does appear it often represents the subconscious, a metaphor for yearnings, regrets. Here it is a vessel, dominated by these beings of great power, human victims in their coils — and yet the interplay between them and Moses is highly significant: dominion and dominance. I’m not aware of Blake referencing the Thames in his work, despite living very close to it for most of his life, yet surely it played a role within his unconscious knowledge of the world. I wonder if he saw serpents and watery beings on his daily walks alongside it? I’m led to believe he and his wife Catherine could see the river from their last flat, where he died, which is now under a major London landmark hotel.

Chapter 10, ‘Reformed beings’, flows up to contemporary times, and the use of images of water beings in literature, films and more. This makes me think of the local town of Ely, once a town of eels, fished for and captured in plentiful supply and shipped off to London as a commodity. Now the eels are gone, with the last remaining eel catcher, into mythology of both creature and trade. Eels live on in artworks, sculptures by the river, and paintings aplenty in local galleries and markets — a symbol of this fenland town. Many tales of the fens are marked by the beings that once inhabited waterways since cut as agricultural drains: part of the industrialisation of land reclaimed from watery bog.

‘Turning The Tide’, the final chapter, forms a confluence, bringing together knowledges from countermovements — indigenous activists, campaigners for social and ecological justice, nature-worshipping religious groups, legal activists, and scholars — to include learnings and imaginings from all kinds of creative practitioners, strongly making the case for recognition of the rights of the more-than-human, and water itself: ultimately, the vessel and element that holds us all.

Here, the full power and resonance of the author’s research comes to the present day, and she offers the full weight of her learning and sharing:

“Today, in a world urgently in need of a change in direction, the stories that water serpent beings tell, and their capacities to represent alternate visions of human-non-human relations, may be the most crucial role that they have ever had.

“As our water serpent beings have shown, societies that have achieved long-term sustainability have done so by maintaining steady-state or circular economies, rather than embarking upon spirals of growth and expansion.”  

Returning to my home city of Cambridge, plagued by the constant over-hanging clouds of development and the ‘growth agenda’, this message needs to ring loud — and just maybe the water beings may rise again from the Cam, or emerge in eel-like form to teach humans this lesson of steady state fluid dynamics. Human and watery other.

Showing 28 Double-headed water being in the form of a ship, Viking Age plate brooch from a grave in Lillevang, Bornholm.
Double-headed water being in the form of a ship, Viking Age plate brooch from a grave in Lillevang, Bornholm.

Water Beings: a Q&A with Veronica Strang 

JMW This is such an extraordinary work of rich, deep scholarship. I appreciate greatly the visual, literary and historical journey you take the audience on, and feel enriched by this book. 

VS Thanks for this kind comment — this research has been a wonderful experience for me. Although water beings appear regularly in folklore, ethnography, history and theology, no one has previously researched aquatic deities systematically and comparatively, and venturing into this new research area has been an extraordinary adventure. Water beings have so much to tell us.

JMW Can you share how this study started, and tell us some of your journey following the waters and the watery beings?

VS My research as an anthropologist has always focused on human-environmental relationships, people’s beliefs and values, and particularly their engagements with water. I have explored a range of issues relating to water: ownership, governance and management; conflicts over water; religious beliefs about water; and rights to water, for humans and for non-human species and ecosystems. Much of this work has been in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and more briefly in Malawi. But the issues around water that interest me recur all around the world.

Water beings swam into my research very early on. In the early 1990s I worked with indigenous Australian communities in Queensland and learned about the Rainbow Serpent that is so central to their lives. A decade in New Zealand, during which I conducted research with Maori iwis on water ownership, rights and management, brought me into contact with their beliefs about rivers as living ancestors, and their taniwha and other water beings. Realising the vital importance of these aquatic deities caused me to pay attention to them elsewhere.

It soon became clear that — since all early human societies worshipped the non-human domain, which we call Nature — water beings (as well as other elemental and non-human ancestral figures) were ubiquitous in human history. And in all of these early societies water beings performed similarly vital connective roles: personifying the creative and potentially destructive powers of water; forming the world and populating with human and non-human beings; providing humans with consciousness and enlightenment; exerting religious authority and, above all, generating water and life in annual cycles of production and reproduction. So for several decades I collected images and narratives about water beings all over the world: feathered and water lily serpents in Central America; African python deities, Arctic undersea beings; Indian nāgas; Japanese cloud dragons and Chinese imperial dragons; North-American Pueblo horned serpents or, on the north-west coast, wolf or bear headed beings; Amazonian giant anacondas and celestial boas; Celtic deities in rivers and springs; Norse sea serpents, and Eastern European rain dragons.

What happened to these water beings over time in different cultural and historical contexts gives us an illuminating narrative about different societal trajectories and transformations in people’s relationships with water and the non-human domain. And so the project grew into the major comparative study that forms the basis of my book. The study shows how growing instrumental control over the environment altered the relations of power between human societies and their environments, and led changes in beliefs and practices in relation to water deities. As humans gained more technological power over water, and felt more ‘god-like’, a fascinating pattern of deity humanisation emerged. This led to the semi-humanisation of water beings, or their displacement by deities in human form, and culminated in the major monotheisms assigning authority to human, male gods and demonising the non-human beings of earlier religions.

JMW Would you explain a little about how you chose to structure the book, and make these categories of beings? And which of the world wide canon of water beings you have researched most captures you? 

VS Water Beings follows the changing patterns in societies’ relationships with water through a comparative study of their water deities. Although these changes happened at different times in different places, the book is loosely chronological, starting with the water beings of the earliest human societies and those that remain central today in place-based indigenous communities. Such societies understood the co-creative role of the non-human domain, manifested in water beings, and sought to have reciprocal and respectful relationships with them. They also maintained relatively egalitarian relationships in their political arrangements, being led by both male and female elders.

The text then moves to examining the effects of greater human control over water, for example in ancient irrigation societies, and considers how their religious and political arrangements changed alongside their new infrastructures. With new hierarchies and centralised governments, power shifted from water deities into the hands of (usually male) priests and deified rulers who became the figures responsible for bringing the rain and maintaining social order.

The following chapters explore how, as societies became more technologically powerful, water beings were made subservient or subsumed by new deities in human form until, with the rise of monotheisms that separated Culture from Nature, and sought dominion over the latter, they were demonised and slain. It also shows how emerging scientific visions disenchanted the world and consigned many nature deities to ‘folklore’. In the final part of the book, however, we see how this alienation from the non-human domain, and the exploitation of other species and environments that it encouraged, has led to the current environmental crisis. There is now an increasing understanding that there is an urgent need for humankind to regain more convivial, and therefore more sustainable, relationships with water, ecosystems, and other living kinds.

The book therefore also examines new visions of water beings in recent and contemporary art, literature and film, in which they are recognised and respected as key manifestations of the co-creative powers of the non-human domain. These emerging images and narratives express people’s growing desire to reconnect more positively with other living kinds and ecosystems.

As for which water beings have captured me the most? I can never choose. My first love was the Australian Rainbow Serpent, but they are all extraordinary and wonderful, beautiful and terrible, and endlessly fascinating. 

JMW Anthropological research gives us an opportunity to look back at historical evidence and to engage with local/cultural knowledges. In this case there is such a desperate need to apply all this knowledge to how we respond to water now, which you explore in some depth in the final chapter. How might we look back in 100 years, with your assessment of the current trajectory of human/water relations? 

VS My research helps, I hope, by showing how, for many millennia, human societies maintained respectful relationships with water and the non-human domain, in which people sought to protect their needs and interests as well as those of human beings. It shows how and why many societies moved away from such egalitarian visions to seek power and dominion over ‘Nature’ and how this increasing inequality led to exploitative and unsustainable practices. Most large societies are still on this trajectory, led by ideologies of growth and expansion, and the belief that yet more technological control will solve the problem. Meanwhile, species and biodiverse habitats continue to disappear, human populations and their use of resources continue to increase, and it seems that humankind is dragging the world towards a painful and potentially critical collapse.

But in almost all societies there are also passionate counter-movements: social and ecological activists and indigenous communities striving to promote alternate ways forward. They share a transformational vision of human and non-human equality, circular economies, more sustainable lifeways, and beliefs and values that recognise the vital co-creative role of the non-human world. These movements are growing: more and more people are pushing their local and national governments and international bodies to make better choices. What the world looks like 100 years from now will depend on whether they can succeed in turning the tide. And in this battle — and it is indeed a battle for human and non-human survival — water beings, as compelling personifications of non-human power and creativity, are a vital narrative device for communicating ideas about how we might engage with water differently.

JMW Do you feel positive about us working with the more-than-human to assert the rights of nature and the rights of water within human law/psychology?

VS How could one feel other than positive about working to uphold the rights of all living kinds in what is fundamentally a shared interconnected world, in which human and non-human wellbeing cannot be separated? This is surely the only rational and ethical position from which it is possible to see a future in which all of us can flourish. So yes, I feel immensely positive, and indeed privileged, to be able to work with these amazing water beings and their wonderful capacities to communicate a more hopeful vision of the future.

Find more

Water Beings – from Nature Worship to the Environmental Crisis by Veronica Strang is published by Reaktion Books (2023). Veronica is a Professor in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford. You can explore her work — and watch a summary video of a planned TV series based on Water Beings — at her website.

James has made or collaborated on water-related films and projects, including The Waterlight ProjectPure Clean Water (2023), River Of Light (details to be published at The Newmarket Chalk Stream Trust). He took part in the recent Being With Water Otherwise conference, where  Veronica was keynote speaker. You can read Un-tending the World – A Geopoetics of the Wild, his recent review of Two Lights by James Roberts. James is also creator of the Finding Blake film and project; Mark Goldthorpe, ClimateCultures editor, is editor of that website and the Waterlight site.

James will be in conversation with Veronica at the Into The Wild gathering in Sussex on either 24th or 25th August (date to be confirmed). The festival itself runs 22nd-26th August.

Chalk-streams is a blog by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, a writer and conservationist with a lifelong passion for rivers.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

Un-tending the World — A Geopoetics of the Wild

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White finds in James Roberts’s ‘Two Lights’ a profound, close observation of the living world: a wise blending between writer and subject that encapsulates the essence of geopoetics as the sensitive expression of reality.

1,780 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes

“There is a skill in un-tending to our spaces, in patiently leaving them to their own remaking. It’s a skill that is vital now, when the damage we’ve done to earth has become so urgently in need of reversal. Some of the best examples we have are found in old churchyards. We can enter and quietly watch the slow unfurling of the space. Perhaps we can rediscover our sense of the sacred.”

James Roberts’s work has been on my radar since I received and reviewed a copy of his astounding Winged four years ago, as the UK and much of the world remained in lockdown during the Covid pandemic. My gut feeling then was that this book
marked the emergence of an artist whose observation and awareness of the creatures of this earth are precise, startling, and vital. And needed, urgently.
I wrote then that he is ultimately a realist interlocutor, and now I’m convinced.

“In this twilight space that echoes with the sound of the falls there is an elsewhere that is almost touchable. Children, every one a little animist, are born with a sense of mystery in nature, though we educate it out of them. It returns at times, in places like this. “

Here, in his new work, it is James’s words and narrative that lead, with a carefully curated collection of images that stand alongside — supporting, not dominating. And his words track difficult and often unimaginable terrain: his wife’s illness, his depression, and the various ecological crises we are foisting upon our world that are accumulating into a bigger disaster of ecosystem collapses that we cannot understand.

Geopoetics in ink: Showing a Swift from the book 'Two Lights' by James Roberts
Swift from the book ‘Two Lights’ by James Roberts

Geopoetics — seeking a renewed sense of world

All of this has sent James out to walk, wander, explore and observe: bigger journeys in earlier days, across Africa and the Algerian desert, and then more recently closer to home, along rivers and streams meandering through Wales and the Welsh/Herefordshire Marches, woods, fields and edgeland strips and crevices.

“I’m doing my best to imagine a species of bird on a planet like ours, but utterly different, thousands of light years away. I imagine this planet spins on a more oblique axis to its sun so that twilight in its northerly and southerly regions lasts for days. Here evolution has favoured creatures which can create their own light. Its oceans glow, lit by clouds of algae. In its strange forests trees have evolved needles which shine like Christmas decorations. And in its skies are great birds blocking out the pointillist patterns of the surrounding galaxies. The birds have long necks and wide wings. They are covered with phosphorescent feathers, standing out against the sky, like luminous swans or comets.”

This is from the opening chapter, ‘Chasing the Dawn’, tracking the start and spread of each dawn across the world, and demonstrates a deftness, an acuteness, and a sense of an observer-participant in this universe, that really fizzles. It sets this book up beautifully.

He leads us across different terrains and habitats, describing how different species of birds interact with and are moved or motivated by the sun’s rising, and then brings us back to ‘home’ with him, with a placing and drawing of his own terrain, and then an overview of how he came to be there.

The chapter delves into a description of his connection to bird life, birding, or bird knowledges — this is such a wise blending between writer and subject. It is as though we are being gently told or forewarned that from here on in, the writer becomes bird, and will be shamanicly moving between these worlds throughout the book.

Showing 'Watching for Swans' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Watching for Swans’ from Two Lights. Image by James Roberts © 2023

The words flow as black marks making narratives on the page, and then as we turn some pages we find a resonant wash of a bird flying across the whiteness. A swan champions upwards, neck and wings extended (I searched for the right descriptive word there, and championing feels like the very best at my disposal right now), within or against a black/grey gloom or miasma, passing across and over.

I’m influenced by the Scottish poet/philosopher Kenneth White, who advocated an approach to life known as geopoetics, defined by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics as “seeking a renewed sense of world, a sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics, expressing reality in different ways, through de-conditioning and using all our senses”. This work — I’m unable to call it simply ‘a book’ — encapsulates all of that, glued together with feathers held and dropped by all the avian community flying past James’s close-observing eye.

Swans abound minutes from my house close to a bend in the River Cam, and I too stop and watch and wonder as they glide and move, inhabiting and dominating watery space. There’s a bird interplay, along this hallowed river space, between swans, ducks, and a heron (I assume it’s a single solitary heron, with a defined hunting ground, though there is a ‘heron tree’ a mile or so further down, which is known to house a dozen or so at various times). And of course there’s at times a very active human layer, University and town teams rowing along at speed, their coaches on cycles bellowing from the towpath. Then there’s the below-the-water-line interplay, although with three sewage inputs within a couple of hundred metres any aquatic life is seriously threatened. And yet, the swans live here! They arch, and breed, and feed. Life.

“It’s our fate on this ocean-facing island, if our direction of travel as a culture continues, to face the rising waters, the ever-more-frequently-boiling rivers. We may continue to poison them, to carve, block, and silt them up for a time yet, believing as we do that they are simply our resources to be harnessed. But they will outlast us and their waters will run clean, eventually. There will come a time when this stretch of river will flow wilder than it does now.”

Creation in the ruins

In another striking sequence, within the chapter titled ‘The Church and the Island’, James writes about visits to ancient churches, creates pictures, discusses religious practices, especially asceticism — fascinating histories of hermits Evagrius and Cynog — and even hearing an ethereal voice testing the acoustics in one building.  He then returns us to the ruins, to the wild, and the becoming that transcends facilitated worship towards an other-worldly deity.

Other snapshots he brings us include tragic moments of hatred invested upon the natural world by some of us. Shooting at swans, tearing apart foxes, throwing an owl’s already dead body onto a road to be crushed by vehicles, and the ugly reality of compulsive photography — of everything! — rather than seeing, observing, sensing, listening, and being with.

Two Lights is writings and images in the ruins. The desolation of despoliation, and not knowing the catastrophe that humans are catapulting ourselves towards. And yet, through close witness, and perhaps the collapse of our ego clutching to all we think we know, the avian world is just there — here, right alongside us. Whether or not they might save us is immaterial. Their equal existence is what’s important, and how we may come to notice that through the witnessing experiences, reflections, and decline of our own mortal lives. He really is writing and creating work about passageways through time and air, led by avian species that live their lives in focussed flights of movement, within landscapes of loss and life.

“Across the continent many species are on fire, crops withering in the prolonged drought and vulnerable people dying. Every single community on Earth, human or wild, has now encountered losses caused by the depletion of nature and by global warming. Unless we find a way to heal the damage we’ve done the losses will accelerate. It will take a huge shift in our psyches to achieve this. Every country, city and village, every community and family needs to ask the question: who speaks for wolf, for bear, for fox, for gull, for heron, for kingfisher – for all species, not just our own?”

'Wolf' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Wolf’ from ‘Two Lights’. Image by James Roberts © 2023

Find more

Geopoetics as untending the world: Showing the cover of 'Two Lights' by James Roberts, published in 2023.Two Lights – walking through landscapes of loss and life by writer and artist James Roberts is published by September Publishing (2023).

You can read a sample chapter at the link above — and explore much more at Night River Wood, James Roberts’s website and his Instagram.

In our Quarantine Connections series, you can read A River of Sound, a piece that James Roberts contributed during Week 8 of our communal sharing of creative content and reflections during the UK’s first Covid lockdowns of 2020. James said of this piece: “I wrote this piece a year ago as a response to an increasing awareness of my own gradual loss and also the almost unnoticeable fading of natural sounds from the landscape. A year later there is a noticeable increase of birds in the landscape, and particularly in the surrounding uplands where the curlews are calling more than I’ve ever heard before. I’m not sure if this equates to me being hopeful for the future of declining species, but it shows how very easy it would be for us to give the wild the space it needs to thrive.”

James Murray-White mentions The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, a network developing an understanding of geopoetics as the creative expression of the Earth. “It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’ in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” You canalos explore the International Institute of Geopoetics.

All the Little Gods Surrounding Us, his review of James Roberts’s earlier Winged is one of 14 posts that James Murray-White has written for us. ClimateCultures was seven years old this March! James was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.

2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes

1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

“Where Have All The Birds Gone?”

Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.

820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes

My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.

Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.

Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.

Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.

If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.

Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses

Bird species in decline. Showing "Where Have All The Birds Gone?" Artwork by Michael Gresalfi
“Where Have All The Birds Gone?” Artwork by Michael Gresalfi © 2023

This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.

I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.

Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.

I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.

I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.

The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:

*Where Have All The Birds Gone?

*In the past 50 years 30% lost in N. America

*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970


















My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.

I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.

Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.

Find out more

You can see Michael’s video ‘Our Changing Planet’ and his large installation “What Man Has Wrought” in our Creative Showcase feature — along with more than 25 examples of other ClimateCultures members’ work.

“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”

Michael Gresalfi

Michael Gresalfi

An artist who seeks to incorporate art with climate change data, and whose work in encaustic medium, glass paint, oils and acrylics includes 'Our Changing Planet'.

Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.

1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes

Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.


Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.

Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

A researcher and curator of activist art, personally specialising in climate communication within the Anthropocene to draw attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.