Writer and online community newspaper publisher, Rod Raglin shares the story of a local Vancouver, Canada, park pond reduced to a seasonal wetland — and a neigbourhood’s dispute with administrators on how to respond amid severe climate change.
940 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes
The pond at South Memorial Park is not so spectacular. It’s situated in the northwest corner of a thirteen-and-a-half-hectare suburban park in the Sunset neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. A few picnic tables are situated beneath the shade of some willows at one end of the pond and are popular during the summer months.
The vast majority of the park is given over to tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer pitch and a running track complete with outdoor exercise equipment.
Intervening in the park pond
In the past, the water level of the pond would fluctuate somewhat with the seasons, but never to the extent that it threatened the resident Mallards. What did begin to impinge on their living space were the reeds (phragmites) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus). These invasive species choked most of the shoreline and extended further and further into the open waterways, limiting flight and paddling paths.
The Vancouver Park Board decided to take action and initiated a costly renovation of the pond that included backhoes removing the infestations of reeds and yellow flags. A new boardwalk was constructed along a stretch of the shoreline and the pond was transformed from a brooding marsh to a sparkling gem.
But something went wrong and the pond levels began to recede – dramatically. Residents claimed Park Board workers damaged the pond’s natural clay membrane with the heavy equipment, causing it to leak. The Park Board denied it but, being an election year, conceded to the demands of the vocal and vociferous pond advocates.
The water levels were topped up with trucked in water for the balance of the summer until the fall rains did it naturally.
The next year the same thing began to happen, and once again the same people demanded that the pond be topped up until the Park Board fixed what they’d broken.
But by this time Vancouver City Council had passed the Water Works By-law (Prohibition Against Wasting Water) and the Drinking Water Conservation By-law (General Prohibition Against Wasting Water) which prohibited the use of potable water in park water features until such time as they could be retrofitted to be recirculating.
British Columbia is feeling the brunt of climate change. For a number of years now, hot dry summers have sparked forest fires in the interior of the province that raged unabated. Outflow winds blow toxic wildfire smoke onto the coast and it’s not unusual for Vancouver’s air quality during the summer to be the worst on the planet.
In 2021, a heat dome parked over the province and sent temperatures soaring into the mid 40s Celsius for six days, resulting in 619 related deaths. The temperature in the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon hit 49/6° C, the highest ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire burned the entire town to the ground.
Every year, the snowpack in the mountains is less, summer starts earlier and lasts longer, with the average temperature inching up. Where once watering restrictions were imposed occasionally, now they’re implemented annually without exception.
It turns out, to top up the pond for one year took 11 million litres of drinking water.
No, the Park Board said, the pond would not be topped up and would become a seasonal wetland.
The response immediately devolved into the type of rancorous debate characterized by adversarial rhetoric and personal attacks. Proponents for the pond cited the fact that a number of park water features had been exempted from the bylaws and were still operating. All were on the west side of the city, home to the affluent neighbourhoods. Politicians were accused of favouring one side of the city over the other, the side where they and their supporters live. It was even suggested that the decision to not top up the pond was racist, Sunset being one of the most racialized neighbourhoods in Vancouver.
The opposition was mute. If you were against the pond and for water conservation it was implied you were racist, elitist, privileged. Open-minded thinking shut down, trust was undermined, and misinformation thrived.
In the end, City Council passed a motion acknowledging the concerns of the pond proponents and requested an “update on the Park Board’s assessment of and plans for the restoration of the pond.”
A glimpse of the future
At the moment, the pond is almost dry, the ducks have abandoned it, and no one is picnicking around a smelly mud hole. On the other hand, the reservoir is ahead 11 million litres of drinking water.
Whether the pond is full or empty doesn’t put anyone’s life at risk, nor anyone’s livelihood for that matter. Livestock don’t die, crops don’t wither. Climate conflict is happening throughout the world and in many areas it’s not about a meditative moment or a family picnic
Vancouverites got a glimpse of the future. They saw how a small issue exacerbated by a far greater one can divide a neighbourhood, even a city. The advocates let emotion trump reason, and our leaders chose expedience over prudence.
Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.
3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes
My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.
Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature
The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.
What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.
The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.
My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:
Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.
Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.
To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.
The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.
In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.
As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”
I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.
Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.
Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.
Cycles of water, cycles of history
The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.
As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:
The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.
After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.
Seasons of change
When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.
Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature.
In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.
This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.
The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.
As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.
All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.
Find out more
You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.
Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”
Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Gifts of Gravity and Light, an anthology of diverse writings on our seasons, and explores how, as we disrupt the living world, our relationship with it shifts, and with it ideas of ‘nature’.
2,980 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes
“Rites of passage are — and should be — about an individual loss of innocence in order to learn the fuller knowledge of the next stage of life, but the young today are having to learn that the very world around them is in passage, a seasick kind of instability. For them, the correct maps are not the OS maps detailing ancient pathways, but rather future maps, showing coastal erosion as the seas rise and where all the horizons are bleak and every melting is an anxiety.” Jay Griffiths captures here part of how it’s not just the natural world around us that is changing with the climate and ecological crisis we have brought it — a whole world shifting into something that’s a nature/artifice hybrid — but our relationship with nature. And as that relationship distorts, so does our idea of it, the emotional register in which we experience seemingly ‘natural’ things. As our seasons change, so do their meanings within us.
A problem in reviewing an anthology is capturing its diversity of voices. And with Gifts of Gravity and Light, diversity is key. Editors Anita Roy and Pippa Marland have brought together a range of writers that’s rarely seen in so-called ‘nature writing’, speaking to a refreshing spectrum of experiences and engagements with the subject. More than simply a break from the genre’s white, middle-class, male traditions, it’s also a broadening of the professionalised model of what such a writer is. As well as Jay Griffiths — who has of course written much on nature and the wild over the years — we have essays from writers of fiction, of dance and theatre criticism, or poetry and plays, and more. The contributors are also artists, dancers, gardeners or rappers, and their personal and family stories include Cambodian, Caribbean, Ghanaian, Indian, Indonesian, Maltese, Romany and Zimbabwean experience or heritage, as well as urban and rural life around the British Isles. These, and the mix of sexuality and gender identities the contributors write from, all inform a rich array of texts. The collection’s subtitle, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, suggests this break but also the renewed, more complex view of nature and of being in it that we need now more than ever. There’s a sense of both being at home in the natural world and of being displaced within it, and it displaced within us. And this even before we consider the disorientating fragmentation brought by Covid, as some of the writers do: pandemic, lockdown, isolation. But there’s also much celebration of nature and humanity here — patterns, encounters, instances and experiences, small and large.
The dozen essays are reflections on the UK’s seasons, taking us through the annual cycle while revealing some of humanity’s fingerprints on it. Even the seemingly least threatening disruptions can be experienced as displacement. Griffiths writes on summer and on fear — fear experienced as a woman walking alone in the countryside, fear of the violence being done to the living world, our home, our seasons: “Summer itself is overshadowed now.” And each season overshadows the next, the sense of progression and endless cycling becoming unmoored.
Spring – unseasonable seasons
Kaliane Bradley writes about spring and its rituals, but speaks from what is meant to be winter: a January that’s forgotten how to be a January. “When the blossoms are unseasonable, it engenders a feeling of dread in me similar to sensing the first hot and morbid congestions of a nosebleed. … It is four months early, and is yet to endure the January frosts. I hate living through unprecedented times, with all the rituals that hold us coming unstuck.”
Our personal experience of the seasons is perhaps a laboratory in which to investigate changing relationships with the rest of the living world. Seasons offer a complicated kind of stability as we navigate our lifepaths through multiple, entangled flows of time: an ebb and flood through successive years’ more-or-less predictable patterns of light and dark, heat and cold, colour advancing and retreating; the infinite daily variations of weather (‘if you don’t like this, wait an hour and you’ll get something different’); the slow-quick flow of lived experience that forms our personal biographies; the eddies of anticipation and memory that at once draw us forward and backward. Seasons evoke, capture and complicate them all, even in the ‘normal’ times we carry ahead within us as we move beyond normal times.
Pippa Marland reminds us that “When we think of ‘Time’ it sounds monolithic, uniform, the thing that takes us inexorably from the cradle to the grave in an unbroken line, straight as a Roman road. It stretches unimaginably far behind and ahead of us, framing our brief appearance. But when you look more closely, you see how complex it is — how its many strands weave together and sometimes fray apart. The linear and the cyclical are always moving through and across each other.”
This folding of time, of its different directions and speeds and associations, is also a feature of each biography. Testament looks back on his urban childhood as something where “for us, ‘nature’ didn’t come naturally. We got in a car and went somewhere. Middle-class aspirations, perhaps. The same reason my parents took me to plays that none of us understood.” In the city, constantly building and rebuilding on itself, “any little green had to squeeze between cracks, creep up the sides of drainpipes, the smallest flowers finding ledges to cling to in the brickwork of the abandoned alleyways I cycled through.”
But on those family trips to the countryside, “once out in an old pair of trainers in a field or woodland, the pleasures were all 3D. It was more than leisure, or even family bonding. It was a new landscape. My parents had allowed me to be part of an image which, as a person of colour, society had often not painted me into.”
Summer – long memory and the arm of return
Michael Malay feels his own displacement on Severn Beach, with memories of his younger self seeing it for the first time on his arrival in the UK, homesick but “excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose.” He wonders at the pull the estuary has on him, its unknowable nature: “Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think… But my head is whirring, a thought-flock of words, and I cannot step out of my mind, which is where I know the estuary begins.”
In contrast, Jay Griffiths writes powerfully of the experience of unfreedom out-of-doors: “frightened of being alone on the dusty lanes and paths … No amount of experience of the vast majority of good-hearted men-o’-th’-woods can ever quell the fear. When I want to get right inside summer like a seed in a sunflower, I find there is a grubby Perspex shield between me and the full experience I crave. I can see it — the bridleway, the campfire, the tavern — but I cannot inhabit it as I wish. … I have been planted not out in the commons but in a pot where my roots cannot spread properly. I have been bonsaied. And I hate it.”
Summer for Tishani Doshi “is the long stretch. The arm of return. After the perseverance of winter and the breakthrough of spring, we are finally here again.” ‘Here’ is another multilayered thing: in her case, a village in North Wales experienced over decades’ of summers, her aim to “net over them all, until they are layered one over the other, a palimpsest of time, of summers.” It is also the memory of her mother’s time in the small village after wartime, on into post-industrial reshapings of the landscape. “I think about how we are made up of the generations before us and how nothing is thrown away. How when we meet it is always in the season of summer.” And how these holiday encounters with Welsh relatives informed and shaped her childhood in India. “I remember returning from summer back to life in Madras, desperate to reveal my new self to my old friends, wondering how their summers had altered them. Summer can be generous, an unending field interrupted by apertures, so it is possible to hitch your load of memories to someone else’s.”
Autumn – a full-body experience
Like memories, life persists and shapes the emerging future, the new normal. Luke Turner says: “It can take a century after a tree’s death for its skeleton to rot away.” The last decaying remains of a copse in Belgium hosts not just new generations of birch and beech but broken stumps and the loops of barbed wire from the Ypres Salient of the First World War. For him as a teenager, it was the site of a school trip to the battlefields of a lost generation, when “in Britain alone, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of nineteen were caught up in the wave of patriotic optimism that swept the country in the autumn of 1914.” That autumn was not dry, as the military planners had predicted and therefore deemed suitable for the Allied offensive, but one of the wettest in decades. The ground conditions, exacerbated by the destruction of the drainage systems, meant that “the battlefield became a quagmire that swallowed, according to some estimates, half a million lives.”
War artist Paul Nash wrote home of a hellish landscape at Ypres, where “sunrise and sunset are blasphemous … mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.” And, as Turner writes, poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “pen captures the dead, the machines, the insanity, the weather, the structure of the trenches, the surrounding natural world … a blurring between corpses of men and trees.”
Anita Roy writes of a very different autumn day in southwest England’s Blackdown Hills: “Autumn on a day like this is a full-body experience. The lane is thick with fallen leaves and they look like they feel — crisp and biscuity; and they sound like they smell — like crushed chestnuts and bonfire smoke. It’s a nostalgic hit to all five senses…” The field she’s visiting — a private place, cared for by a friend — “is one of the very few places on Earth where the balance is right. It’s not wild — not really — but neither is it cultivated.” In an eery balance with Turner’s battlefield, this English treescape is fundamentally shaped by humans: “the timber chopped for logs, and smaller batches and twigs are fed through the noisy shredder … There’s no shortage of signs of human activity — but all this is poised, counterposed, or rather harmonised with the natural ebbs and flows, urges and surges of nature.” Where poppies rise from battle-torn soils and stand for remembrance of what should have never been, here wildflowers are now “allowed to emerge from the fallow soil” and speak to what could still be.
Although this visit is in autumn, Roy recalls an earlier visit in the spring of our first covid year, when she fled to the field “pursued by general anxiety fuelled by the news of the pandemic and accelerated by upward spiking graphs. Alarming, horrifying, overwhelming as these were, you’d have thought by now we’d be used to it, given the similar infographics on climate change.” But, as unlearned lessons from the carnage of warfare also show, although we’re good at seeing patterns we’re not skilled at heeding them, of understanding connections between those things we find more convenient to treat as separate — in fact, prefer to actively disconnect in our imaginations. “Tree? Leaf? Wind? Stalk? Where does one end or the other begin? Humans! So busy trying to make sense of things, so good at not trusting what their senses do say. I give up trying to quieten my metaphor-making monkey mind. All those imaginary lines, axes and degrees, … tipping points and see-saw seasons, of life and death, summer and winter, future and past, and the impossible task of pinning down where is ‘here’ and when is ‘now’.”
As Raine Geoghegan remarks, “There’s something about autumn that is conducive to reflections and introspection. Perhaps it’s a time when the earth shifts into a gentler gear, where Nature calls us to be attentive, to notice the movements of wind and water and to wake up, open our eyes to the deep beauty that is all around us.” It is, as she says, an invitation to calm the mind and ask “What gifts are we given at this time of the year?” Her poems here are sprinkled with Romany words, or ‘jib’: Koring Chiriclo, the cuckoo; grai, horses; drom, road; vardos, wagons; atchin tan, stopping place.
Raine sits surrounded by Herefordshire’s trees — oaks, willows, silver birch, spruce and beech that “all seem to be reaching for the sky” — and watches a nearby stream. “I find myself singing for the trees, an old song. The river she is flowing, flowing and growing, the river she is flowing, down to the sea. Oh mother carry me, a child I will always be. Oh mother carry me, down to the sea.”
Like Raine’s Romany heritage, her personal experience of the disabling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia feeds her relationship with the natural world — a ‘Deep Living’ as she calls it. “I rest in the mornings and I take my time to do each task. I see more of what is around me, noticing the little things: the sky changing colour; a blackbird swooping onto the lawn and peeking at the grass; the way the moon glows in the night sky; small wildflowers bursting through a crack in the pavement. For me, everything comes back to Nature.”
Winter – the yield of the year
Writing this review in the cold spell brought in by Storm Arwen, I find that Zakiya McKenzie’s introduction to winter has a special bite: “My mother first came to England during one of the coldest winters that country had ever seen. Months and months where the days were inky and nights were frigid with lonely unfamiliarity … It was colder still to a child who had spent all her life in a place where the sun watched over her every move. That Jamaican countryside sun was her companion… In the new country, the sun held itself back leaving a murky array of shades of black, white and grey. The trees stood naked and stark … My mother did not know that the leaves returned with haste in the spring…”
Familiar seasonal companions become less constant and predictable when it’s the climate itself that’s shifting; winters we might have expected in past decades become rare — but can still catch us out. Winter’s “ability to replenish and renew, to be entirely different in one place from the next, reflects a thing recreating itself,” McKenzie suggests. “If we too spring and grow and then wither and die, can we not refresh and replenish too? In winter lies the assurance that, though the tether of our hearts is long and twisted, time is longer still.”
Amanda Thomson shares Scottish words associated with winter: Yield is the influence of the sun on frost, Waller a confused crowd in a state of quick motion (a waller of birds — and maybe of Michael Malay’s ‘thought-flock of words’), Snell the severe, sharp quality of the air. “On blue days when the air is snell, or in anticipation of it becoming so, ten, twenty coal tits, blue tits and great tits gather at the feeders, along with occasional woodpeckers, siskin and finches — gold, green, bull, chaff. When I go out to replace the fatballs, they fly behind, in front, overhead with a
so close and in stereo, ruffling the air like an express train speeding through a smaller Highland station on its way south to Glasgow or Edinburgh.”
As Alys Fowler walks and slips along clay-mud paths in a park near Birmingham — paths that feel “wounded … hardening in the summer from the previous winter’s damage, like scar tissue, reopening in the winter, rotting and foetid” — she brings ideas of displacement down to ground level. “Whereas soil wants to be firmly rooted, mud wants to go places, it oozes out of its home. It sticks, coats and clings to all that it touches. It wants to move on … because its particles are no longer knitted together by gossamer-thin threads of fungi and the microbiology of billions of small lives that make up the structure of the soil.” Our foothold on the surfaces of a world that’s in unaccustomed motion itself becomes uneasy and unstable, as we slip and stick and come unstuck.
This is a generous book, offering the small stories — of childhood, family, place, of growth and falling away and regrowth — that enable the big connections with the flow of the world. And maybe, in its multiple, diverse encounters and imaginative layerings, it helps point to ways we might yet adapt, adjust ourselves to shifting realities, by paying the world the attention that repays us with yet more to see and sense.
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Gifts of Gravity and Light, edited by Anita Roy and Pippa Marland, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2021). The title is taken from a poem by Simon Armitage, who provides an extract from his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an epilogue; fellow poet Jackie Kay’s Promise provides the epigraph, with a foreword by Bernadine Evaristo.