Unpacking Deep Time in Our Living Present

The living presentClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk field kit’s latest addition — an attractive and engaging set of cards that explores our planet’s 4.6 billion year timeline and offers us thoughtful paths into the living present.


1,630 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes 


The same creative team who brought us the innovative Deep Time Walk app in 2017 has now released this beautifully illustrated pack of cards, laying out the timeline and the story of the development of the Earth and its life over our full 4.6 billion years. It’s a mini-encyclopedia and pocket guide to the origins and meaning of being human in our home world.

Deep Time Walk cards
Deep Time Walk cards

From Earth’s origins (4,600 million years ago) and Late Heavy Bombardment (4,100 MYA), through the arrival of the first RNA molecules (3,800 MYA) and life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (3,700 MYA) to the oldest fossils (3,400 MYA), this is a story of great detail and complexity that the pack’s writers — Geoff Ainscow, Dr Stephan Harding and Robert Woodford — have done a remarkable job of condensing into captivating and compelling prose. A whole team of artists have produced images to complement a narrative that could at times overwhelm us with technical ideas — ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (2,600 MYA), ‘Ediacarans / Cambrian explosion’ (500 MYA), ‘energetic mitcochondria’ (1,800 MYA) — but which never holds up the story. Many of the cards also come with very short quotations from scientists, thinkers and artists:

“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history.”

– Rachel Carson

“The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”

– Nan Shepherd

“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

– Thomas Berry

“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”

– Richard Powers

Showing our ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth
Ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth

Each card covers 100 million years and, in around 150 words, does an admirable job of relating the known facts and the theories that give us our current understanding of where we’ve come from, just how far life on Earth has travelled in a succession of staggering biochemical novelties, biotic explosions and mass extinctions, and the humblingly brief span of time that is the story of our own species within this slow-fast-slow dance of the living planet.

The dawn of humans arrives 47 cards into the timeline — with the very next card bringing us to the present and into the Anthropocene. Breaking the steady pace of 100 million years per card to allow for this sudden explosion of various human species, the domination of Homo sapiens and our accelerating growth as a species and a world-shaping force, those last two cards in the sequence cover just 1 million years — “By about 500,000 years ago, early humans were making clothing to keep themselves warm, building shelters, creating fire and utilising hand axes.” If the card makers had stuck to the prehuman timescale of around 150 words per 100 million years, I reckon Homo sapiens — and the invention of words themselves — would have merited only the last syllable of the final word in the Anthropocene Epoch’s card: ‘extinction’.

The living present — a future on the cards

Fortunately, the story does not end there and the cards themselves continue, posing questions of our common future — ‘stabilised or hothouse Earth?’ — and offering suggestions for positive action and radical hope. The idea of these cards is itself an offering of action and hope in what it encapsulates as ‘the living present’: an opportunity to pause after the 4.6 billion year journey of the cards’ narrative and “take time to ground yourself again amidst the emotions that may be arising.” It’s an invitation to breathe with a renewed awareness of what the oxygen in your breath actually means in the long story of a living earth, what its exchange with carbon dioxide in your lungs means for our collective moment on Earth, and the work that your own particular community of microbes is doing with you here and now — inside the entity that you regard as ‘you’ — and your place in the community of beings now, as well as past and future:

“The influence of the deep past and the interdependence of the living present is all around you: it is your wider body, your greater self, our common home.”

Showing our life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion
Life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion

Fittingly, then, the model for the cards — though complementary to the app itself, which is most likely to be experienced solo, whether on your favourite walk or in an encounter with some new place (either way, revealed as a localised but globally connected assemblage of soil, water, rock, sky and living beings) — is as a communal exploration, a conversation with others. You might share the pack with a friend or group as you walk together: perhaps taking turns to read out loud through the timeline; perhaps, stopping to consider some of the science and what it reveals in the living scene around you; maybe leafing through some of the illustrations and seeing what comes up in reflection on some of the questions you might share about the ecological and climate crises of our time.

Humanity’s place on Earth

The Living Present card poses a few ready questions to get just such a discussion started. “How do you feel about humanity’s place and impact on Earth now? … What strikes you about Earth’s long evolution?” My favourite question is probably “Has your sense of time shifted?”; whereas the ultimate challenge of “What can you do to help humanity shift towards a deep ecological consciousness?” is probably too daunting for most of us, even (or especially) after such an encounter with the immensity of Deep Time. It’s hard to feel at one and the same time the great immensity of the living planet over timescales vastly exceeding the brief flicker of our own existence, and to conjure the sense of the needed difference that one moment of thought in one lifetime among so many billion human lives can help to create. That is the paradox of our present times and of our personal time on Earth, however. And, as the cards neatly demonstrate, the resolution to the paradox and the key to avoiding a feeling of despair at the sheer scale of the challenge is that we are not alone. Immediately after posing that possibly overwhelming question, the card wisely advises: “For group work we recommend Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects and the book written with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope.” These cards are stepping stones within a much larger landscape and offer us that necessary bridge to action.

Understanding our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present
Our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present

Some of that action will be new thinking, questioning, conversation and further reading. Take the cards out again with a new group and see what emerges in your walk together through the woods, along the river, through the city park, beside the coast.

Some of it might be assembling with others — for street action, for political opposition, for culture-changing proposition. Take your appreciation of Deep Time into this present moment of crisis and opportunity.

Some of it might be working alone — creating stories, art, video, music or poems from your encounters with the cards and with the living world, putting the two into dialogue — and then coming together to share these artistic expressions in a public space, a private venue, a platform like ClimateCultures or a new site of your own creation.

Some of it might be devising and organising new walks with others in your communities, using these cards and your previous experiences with them or with the app as a means to simply share space and time and a little breathing room in the world.

Joining the Scientist and the Fool

As the introductory card explains, “We hope the pack empowers others to express Earth’s deep history in a multitude of forms, with the openness to imbue them with meaning to connect hearts and minds across different cultures and traditions.”

Whether you’ve already used the app or have yet to try it, I recommend you also (re)immerse yourself in the story told there by the Scientist and the Fool and introduce it to someone else. How might the two of you retell the journey? What questions arise, and who else might you find to explore them with? The app also works as an audio book for a sedentary journey, though travelling far with your own brain. And the script is now available as a short book. So there are many ways to explore Deep Time ideas and to bring them to life in your encounters with the world and with others. Many ways of thinking through and discovering your next step.

“What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour”

– William Blake


Find out more

The full field kit — app, audiobook CD, script and cards — is available at the Deep Time Walk site. And you can read the ClimateCultures review of the original app, Taking the World for a Walk; the app itself has been updated since then, with a range of new features described here.

Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects was republished by New Society Publishers in 2014 in an updated version, as Coming Back to Life. You can explore Macy’s work at JoannaMacy.net and the ideas that the book explores and the work it inspires at The Work That Reconnects Network.

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy was published by New World Library in 2012.

“Firestone far beneath our feet”

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller BooksJames Murray-White took a break from editing his Finding Blake film to review Cornerstones: subterranean writings. This new collection explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth.


930 words: estimated reading time 3.5 minutes 


Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.

Liquid light Photograph by James Murray-White
Liquid light Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Underground dream-worlds

The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.

Going underground Photograph by James Murray-White
Going underground
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.

Cornerstones

As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller Books
Cornerstones
Little Toller Books © 2017
Cover design: Rodney Harris, ‘Strata of England & Wales’: www.rodneyharris.co.uk

Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.

Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.

There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.

On the borders of change

Great Whin Sill, Hadrian's Wall country
Great Whin Sill, Hadrian’s Wall country
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2007

I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.

I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.


Find out more

Cornerstones – subterranean writings (2018, edited by Mark Smalley) is published by Little Toller Books. 

You can hear the four original Cornerstones episodes of the BBC Radio 3 the Essay series on BBC Sounds. 

You can read about Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity (2010) and Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010) at Wikipedia.

Do also check out our August 2017 post from ClimateCultures Member Oliver Raymond-Barker, Beyond Tongues: into the Animist Language of Stone. And you can also read Shaped by Stone, a very brief review on my small blog of an essay by Tom Baskeyfield, writing in the new TERRA collection from the Dark Mountain Project. Oliver and Tom are both photographers with impressive portfolios that include Anatomy of Stone and Shaped by Stone respectively.

A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

Author Mary Woodbury opens a two-part series on the development of eco-fiction: a form with many roots, which is “not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres.”


1,900 words: estimated reading time 7.5 minutes 


You can read the second part of A History of Eco-fiction here.

***

When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland
Horses near our cottage, western Ireland. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.

And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.

Lake Isle of Innisfree
Lake Isle of Innisfree. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

from The Stolen Child, WB Yeats

What is Eco-fiction?

One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:

  • The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  • The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  • Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  • Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):

“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”

Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history.  Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds. 

A short note on climate change in fiction

These days, many terms have sprung up to address the 'hyperobject' that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it. 

A History

Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:

“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system.
Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system:
Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life? Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”

So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy. According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:

“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”

There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.

Eco-fiction: Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905)
Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905). Courtesy, Wiki Commons.

We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.

One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and  nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection.

***

In Part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary looks at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.


Find out more

For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece:

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

Writer Nick Hunt traces the years through present, future and past on a path that will not stay forever on any one course; and returns us to a longer view, honouring the power and beauty of natural forms.


1,570 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes 


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The years: this seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Years: plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory — used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls — was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever-mutating variety — polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene — plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but — as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out — more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar 'farming'
Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient — unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years — but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there — the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky — and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is — he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century — and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

Years: the Long Man of Wilmington
The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.


Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics in this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

ClimateCultures is pleased to share Nick’s own selection of five passages from his new book, Where the Wild Winds Are.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

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

 

Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

Writer Justina Hart concludes her account of writing Doggerland Rising, researching the prehistory of the mesolithic peoples of these lowland plains before sea level rise created the North Sea, and reveals what she has learned from the process.


2,340 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes 


This post follows on from Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.

Mesolithic - Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC)
Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia (‘Doggerland’)
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.

Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.

I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:

aggradation, bathymetric, borehole data, eustatic, isopach, progradation

The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:

Wade in with palaeogeographers,
archaeologists, palaeogeologists,
cartographers who swim
into the past for a living, 
who disturb and reconfigure depths.

Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished section I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:

A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters. 
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.

Letting go of research and sinking into the sea

Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it — taking whatever I’d absorbed with me — and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.

Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was — as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority — the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.

I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:

And Atlantis can once again
Rise from the ocean
And the musical, beautiful sound will resound
And shake in every tree …

I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).

Druridge Bay, Northumberland. Photograph by Dr Louise Callard
Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523

I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.

Here is a note from my journal:

5 November 2016 — research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around the ears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].

After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:

The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also to themselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk to themselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us through this film too, and not.

Mesolithic revisited - "Doggerland swamps". Photograph by Justina Hart
“Doggerland swamps”
Photograph: Justina Hart © 2017
http://justinahart.com

The first character emerges — let’s call him Shaman

One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.

This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.

This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section two: 

‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with     saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clue about me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’

Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.

So I navigated my imaginative North Sea — and the poem — by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.

After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.

Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sharing the poem — feedback and editing 

Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement — a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.

Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:

Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouth
into blue – blue is my element and green –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:

Here I come: pushed from the river’s veins
into blue – blue is my dwelling place –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through
paradise to Germany, Holland, France.

Few readers might have noticed — and the rhythm worked well — but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.

‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘the uplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’

Here’s the final refrain:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through 
plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.

 I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact-checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem: 

‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is 8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendar years ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.

Personal insights — leaving the Mesolithic

The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.

Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.

The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.

By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.


Find out more

You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.

Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.

And you can find out about Second Light Live workshops and publications.

Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

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