Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’

Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.


3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes


At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.

On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.

Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).

Climate change — a background hum

Nick Hunt's choice:

- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin
- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk

Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.

Desert Island Books - 1, Always Coming Home
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin

Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.

Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.

The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.

In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.

“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”

Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.

Navigating unbearable things

Caroline New's choice:

- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell

I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.

Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.

As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.

Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.

Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.

Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.

Desert Island Books - 2 The Ship
The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell

The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.

The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.

Closing the species gap

Peter Reason's choice:

- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky
- The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?

The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.

Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”

Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:

  1. Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
  2. Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
  3. Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
  4. Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
  5. Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
  6. Compassion.

And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”

In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.

Desert Island Books - 3 The Overstory
The Overstory, by Richard Powers

This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.

The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.

Climate change in a realist tradition

Deborah Tomkins' choice:

- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver 
- Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall 
- What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.

I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.

Desert Island Books - 4 Flight Behaviour
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.

The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.

Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.

I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.

They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).

I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.

Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Photograph: Friends of Redland Library ©
2020

The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.


Find out more

Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.

The Friends of Redland Library spun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.  

Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).

Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk, is published by Shed (2014) and available as a free download.

The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson (Orion, 2015).

The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2019).

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, is published by University of Regina Press (2018). You can read James Murray-White‘s February 2019 review for ClimateCultures: Attending to the World’s Extraordinary Surprise.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is published by Penguin (2018).

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, is published by Faber & Faber (2012).

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, is published by Bloomsbury (2014).

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes, is published by Chelsea Green Publishing (2015).

Caroline New
Caroline New
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'.
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Deborah Tomkins
Deborah Tomkins
A writer of long and short fiction and articles, who started writing about climate change to answer the question – ‘How, really, will it be?’
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Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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Peter Reason
Peter Reason
A writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives.
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Fool’s Gold — the Cairn and the Wishing Well

In this piece — commissioned by artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman for their exhibition, Fool’s Gold — editor Mark Goldthorpe explores notions of value and care through our experience of objects as works of nature, culture and transformation.


1,700 words + photo gallery – approximate reading time: 8 minutes 


How are we to value things? The objects we make, consume, keep, curate or discard? The natural world around us? The art that explores nature and culture? Artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman ask questions of value with Fool’s Gold, their new two-person exhibition. And, as their title suggests, simple answers — or those that appear simple and we find so attractive on the surface — are deceptive. With time, objects of convenience, of instant desire, of proven utility can become inconvenient, spent desires, markers of futility. Creations of modernity in relationship with ancient nature: things of the now and of deep time. The everyday and the deferred tomorrow.

Transforming human being and thinghood

Matter isn’t just inert, empty until given human meaning. As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, it’s vibrant and vital, making a world where “human being and thinghood overlap … the us and the it slip-slide into each other.”

Two artists, with three pieces each, together create an imaginary and immersive landscape that speaks of our transformation of the material world. Harrison’s cairns and Schilderman’s wishing well, Schilderman’s broken glass castle and Harrison’s array of quadrats, Harrison’s winter blues and Schilderman’s spiral wall speak to each other, allow us to look through and at them and encourage us to see, and to ask… What will we leave behind us? What can we repurpose to better ends?

‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Wishing Well’ – salt crystals & recycled glass. Photo: P.Schildermam © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Transformation is a common thread. Hayley Harrison finds her materials by foraging the waste she encounters in city and countryside: nature transformed and discarded is her natural resource. Pamela Schilderman’s own exploratory mode takes everyday objects and reveals through them another purpose, a new and unexpected expression.

Fool’s Gold: precautionary tales

There’s a fairy tale character to this new landscape, reframing our mundane perception of the world beyond the gallery and prompting us to see things differently. An artists’ landscape, it’s still the one that we inhabit and recreate daily through our countless choices and the compromises and constraints we live under. But the reuse and reshaping these six pieces bring about refashions the whole into something like a cautionary tale for our times. Or perhaps what academic and artist Renata Tyszczuk calls precautionary tales, which “might work with an imagination of the future based on the ethic of care and paying attention … caring as both a practice and an attitude: an attainment and responsiveness of an altered Earth and a new, strange reality.”

‘Fool’s Gold’ detail – wallpaper & fool’s gold. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Quadrats’ – recycled red plastic bags & discarded materials + ‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Signs of humanity’s alteration of the natural world are all around. They are much argued over, but with no room now for outright denial that there’s a problem with the planet. The conspiracy peddlers are still out there, of course, somewhere between a flat Earth and a moon that never was touched by human bootprints. Leave them in their delusional orbits, and let us talk. We can do so without feeling we have to agree, that there’s an argument we need to win, or we must at once put the world to rights.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic? When you think of the future, do you see something that’s already happened and we must decide how best to live with, or something as yet unrealised that we must make? Either way, we have choices to make. We might choose differently, but let’s agree there’s much to care about — to care for — and that we need to be creative in how we approach this.

Artist Tania Kovats says “I’m not naive; I don’t think art can stop the climate crisis, but I think it can give us new ways to think about it … Both in very conscious ways and in very unconscious ways, because our relationship with this crisis has entered our imaginations as much as it has entered our consciousnesses.” Art helps us engage imaginatively with possibilities — within ourselves and within the world.

A large part of what we know personally about the world is built on what we see. But our perceptions are flawed and incomplete. There’s just no way we can take the whole world in: it exceeds us. Imagination helps us plug perception’s gaps, to bridge the distance between us and other. But much of the time, imagination — fed in new and dazzling ways — leads us astray. Rather than connection with reality — real reality, the mineral, microbial and growing, breathing one that sits beneath and beyond our shiny, distracting world of artefacts — it brings a widening disconnect. We’re in nature — that photosynthesising, mutating, proliferating web of beings and bedrock that’s sedimenting, accreting, eroding and circulating to long beats of time that underpin our daily lives — but increasingly we believe we’re operating apart from it. We hold it in reserve: something separate and special and, when we come up against it on screens or adventures, sometimes something truly awesome. But our imaginations, day to day, become a bit dulled to what the world really is: how long it persists, how quickly it shifts, the scale of our rising billions’ impact upon it. So our imaginations need a reset from time to time, and art can transform our perceptions of the taken-for-granted.

Evoking beauty, provoking care

Beauty is perhaps something else we take for granted. Do you look for it in a gallery but not in your waste bin or on the littered margins of our public spaces? Does it reside only in perfection — in pristine nature, in a particular industrial design? Or is it also in the flaws and fractures, the failed experiments, the detritus and ruins of past success? And what of beauty that passes, and the beauty in passing as we let go of artefacts, ideas or habits whose time is up? Cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey describes a possible ethic of ‘palliative curation’ in a world where all nature is marked by the human. This anticipatory marking of transience “suggests another way of approaching this interval of uncertainty — creating opportunities to say ‘goodbye’” to loved landmarks and objects. We might observe their “stages of unmaking” through “rituals of leave-taking that help us bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘gone’.”

‘Winter Blues’ – discarded umbrella frames, plastic bags, recycled plastic Christmas tree, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Crystal Clear’ – recycled glass. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.” Let us focus on objects then and, in sharing a space for conversations about ecological and climate predicaments, let’s each of us pay attention to and expand the scope of those things that are, as poet Alun Lewis expressed it, “within the parish of my care”. If it’s right that human being and thinghood overlap in a vital material world, then proper care for our objects is also care for our selves, and for the non-human selves we share the world with and seem bent on crowding out.

Discarded crisp packets turned inside out, plastic bags pulled into string to be wound and stretched, structures made from broken glass and imperfect salt crystals: frames and lenses through which to look again and see the familiar (always a deception) as new, strange, inviting. Full of potential once more, and offering containers for our hopes and for memories of nature we’d pushed down, unmarked and forgotten beneath the everyday. Build yourself a shiny cairn to honour and re-present those things of value that we’ve discarded, or now need to bid farewell. Make yourself a wishing well to express the better things we might bring about, the value we can now create. Fashion your own frame for the world and invite others to the view. Together, make a new path through the woods. And take care.

RAGM Fools Gold Installation View. Photograph: Jamie Gray © 2020
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Click on image and expand for full size slideshow with captions.


Find out more

This piece arose as a commission from Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman as part of their project. Mark met with Hayley and Pamela at the British Library in November 2019, ahead of the completion of their pieces for the exhibition.

Fool’s Gold runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 14th March. It invites visitors to engage in conversations around the climate crisis and our use of materials. The exhibition is accompanied by workshops, talks, an animation and a live installation. There will be an In Conversation artist talk on Tuesday 6th March at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum at 6 pm (tickets £6). This project is funded by Arts Council England and Rugby Council, and supported by Practical Action, an innovative international development organisation based in Rugby and putting ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world.

Hayley Harrison is an artist whose work examines our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other — via discarded materials, text, performance and video. 

Pamela Schilderman is an artist whose practice is strongly influenced by science exploring notions of identity and individuality through repetition, often juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm as though adjusting the lens of a microscope.

The passages quoted in the text are taken from:

Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Duke University Press, 2010).

Renata TyszczukProvisional Cities: cautionary tales for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2018).

Tania Kovats – Living Near Water (Start the Week: BBC Radio 4, 9/12/19).

Caitlin DeSilvey – Anticipatory history (Uniform Books, 2011). You can read previous posts where Mark reviews and discusses some of the ideas in the book Anticipatory history: Anticipatory History and The Words That Make Our Stories.

Sherry Turkle – Evocative Objects: things we think with (MIT Press, 2007).

Alun Lewis – In Hospital: Poona (1944) in Alun Lewis: Collected Poems (Seren Books, 2015).

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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An Invitation to Act: Letters to the Earth

Poet Clare Crossman was inspired to respond to a public call for Letters to the Earth and her poem is included in the publication — a book which offers “a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature.”


1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


Early in 2019 a call went out on social media, I think I saw it on Facebook. Culture was also proclaiming an emergency. They were looking for ‘letters to the Earth’ from writers all over the country, to be read out loud during an event linking the Globe Theatre to the streets, the protests — anywhere people were gathering during a one-day event in April, when it was planned that everything they had been sent would be read out loud by someone, somewhere for the Earth.

Letters to the Earth book design, showing swallow illustrations by Jackie Morris
Letters to the Earth
Swallow illustrations: Jackie Morris © 2019

I had recently written a poem in the form of a monologue about climate change. It had arisen on a dark winter’s night in 2018 when I found myself in deep discussion with a science journalist, a theatre director and filmmaker at an arts get-together. We were looking at the stars and wondering. It turned out we all had entirely different perspectives. Someone said they believed we were just part of a geological arc of years and that we were facing extinction. The Anthropocene was the Sixth Mass Extinction and it was as predictable as the cycles that had brought the Ice Age. It was a point in history, we as human beings had ruined the natural world and there wasn’t much that could be done about it.

The act of naming

It was such a starry night and we were outside in the dark looking up. This conversation stayed with me in the way certain experiences do if you are a poet. I think it lingered because the landscape of Cumbria and other, southern, landscapes formed my writing. I grew up in a profoundly rural place, close to a farm that still had a field called The Meadow that was left to go wild and filled with buttercups, clover, speedwell and eyebright in what I see now as a deeply held tradition for the dairy farmer who lived opposite us and spoke in Cumbrian dialect.

Earlier, I also was brought up by a countrywoman whose father had been a carter in the depths of undeveloped Kent where she lived on a farm. She knew the names of all the wildflowers I asked about. The rare, the common, the folk, alternative names and some of their herbal properties. I was always walking into stinging nettles, she always supplied a dock leaf. When hot, we sucked the honey out of the bottom of clover petals.

So I have a sense that the natural world was part of me and it is to my great advantage and by luck that I have a connection and can name these things. In the north, an occupation on a summer’s afternoon was to walk or go and swim in the wash pools of the beck at Mungrisdale. So, this is why I wrote the poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, which found its way into Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis. I was delighted and surprised when I received an e-mail asking for permission to publish it. I thought it would become part of the wind, which was good enough for me.

As Simon McBurney writes in his piece included in the book, The Act of Naming: “To be unable to name is to be cut off because we cannot read. If we cannot read, we cannot connect or orientate ourselves or know that story you, our earth is telling”. I am not going to write on this now but, needless to say, if you want to know the recent statistics on the numbers of children who never go into nature and don’t see it as part of them, look no further than Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future.

Firepit conversation

The Night Toby Denied Climate Change wasn’t the kind of poem I usually write. I wanted what I had to say to be carried on someone’s voice, so I wrote it as a monologue in the voice of someone who I imagine was sitting around a fire pit with Toby and others. I started my working life in theatre and still love its democratic openness of forms.

Letters to the Earth logo by Jackie Morris
Letters to the Earth logo
Artist: Jackie Morris © 2019

The book of a hundred poems and prose pieces selected from all the letters they received is broad and lovely in scope. As it says on the flyleaf, “The book you are holding contains letters from all of us: parents and children; politicians and poets; actors and activists; songwriters and scientists. They are letters of Love, Loss, Hope and Action to a planet in crisis. They are the beginning of a new story. They are an invitation to act.”

There are some very august writers and thinkers in this book, as well as many young people. In Katie Skiffington’s letter, Procrastination, she begins every paragraph with the word ‘Sorry’, after beginning ‘Dear Future Generations’. Her whole letter is an apology describing all the things we did not do:

Sorry. We didn’t get there in time. We were late. Except we had time.
...
Sorry that instead of seeing trees as graceful homes for now extinct species, we view them as nothing but paper; money. Great big money-making machines.

There are also pieces which create new metaphors and stories for Earth. Peter Owen Jones redefines his relationship with the earth as milk which was given him. Mark Rylance creates a fairy story based on a canoeing excursion he has just made down the Colorado River where he sees cities and skyscrapers fall. There is Yoko Ono’s writing and of course Mary Oliver, Jay Griffiths, and Caroline Lucas. The poet Nick Drake and the novelist Lyndsay Clarke.

Letters to provoke

Even though they are many established famous names, these are all pieces of new writing balanced with each other in tone and ideas from many others and so Letters to the Earth should not be seen as a coffee table book. Oh no. It is a book full of a hundred very different thoughtful pieces which may be of use in teaching or inspiring writing and, of course, thought. The range of all reactions to climate change is there to provoke the reader and all emotions — despair, hope, loss as it says on the flyleaf. In his piece An Apology/A Prayer the playwright Steve Waters says:

OK, In our defence
By way of
Justification
The prospects for the
FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The prospects for
POSTCAPITALISM
The prospects for
FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM
Looked, and on one of the good days still look 
Exciting

And perhaps we found ourselves so gripped by the narrative Of
GLOBALLY ACCELERATED GROWTH
Or the
INTEGRATION OF THE SOUTHERN ECONOMIES
Or the advent of
NANO-TECHNOLOGY

(I mean you have to realise some of us were born in a period when we could use the words
‘the future’
Say them:
‘the future’ 
Entirely without irony or dread)

There is wit, delight and sorrow in every page of this book. It forms a beginning to show what is happening in the world: a response, perhaps even a first base, or a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature. In a world where temperatures are rising, the ice is melting and mass extinction of many species has already happened.


Find out more

Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, with an introduction by Emma Thompson and edited by Anna Hope, Jo McInnes, Kay Michael and Grace Pengelly, is published by Harper Collins UK (2019). All royalties go towards ongoing creative campaigning for environmental justice. 

The wider initiative which led to the book came about in the spring of 2019, when a small group of women came together around a kitchen table to talk. “We’d not even met before. But we had been profoundly shaken by the increasingly dire news of climate and ecological collapse, and inspired by the work of Extinction Rebellion and the Global Youth Strike in bringing that news to the forefront of the public conversation. In our working lives we are theatre makers and writers and we felt strongly that we wanted to find a way to facilitate a creative response to these times of emergency.” As well as Extinction Rebellion, and Global Climate Strike, Letters to the Earth was inspired by and works in sympathy with Culture Declares Emergency

On the Letters to the Earth website you will find a range of resources, including short videos of readings of some of the letters, an open call to write your own letter, suggestions for local events, and further reading. As well as Clare’s poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, the book also includes contributions from two other ClimateCultures members: social scientist Dr Stuart Capstick (Finding Dory) and poet Nick Drake (The Future).

You can read The Night Toby Denied Climate Change and other poems of Clare’s at her website. And do also explore the Waterlight Project, her collaboration with fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White and others on the natural and social history of the River Mel in Cambridgeshire. Clare recently wrote some poems for the jazz trio Red Stone about another river, the River Gelt in Cumbria. Entitled Green Shelter, it was premiered at Tullie House in Carlisle on November 30th 2019, with the poems, Red Stone’s music and an accompanying film. You can see a promo for the film, including one of Clare’s poems, Green Shelter.

The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future by Fiona Reynolds is published by Bloomsbury (2017).

Artist and illustrator Jackie Morris — creator with Robert Macfarlane of The Lost Words: A Spell Book (published by Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK, 2017) created the swallow logo for Letters to the Earth and Culture Declares Emergency. She has written about her experience with the book on her blog: About time: or, Letters to the Earth.

Clare Crossman
Clare Crossman
A poet with a background in theatre, collaborations with an illustrator and a songwriter, and practical and creative engagements with local landscapes and nature.
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Othering — on Woodlands, Maps and Language

Artist Jo Dacombe explores the othering of woodlands through maps and language as bordering us off from the natural world, and looks to ways to reconnect.

 


2,000 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has written that Othering is a defining feature of Western culture:

“Some authors (notably Said, 1985, 1994) have argued that Western identity and culture are fundamentally forged by an othering logic, one that dehumanizes or devalues other people, such as primitives, uncivilized, orientals, blacks, non-believers, women and so forth. An essential feature of othering is denying the Other his/her own voice, denying him/her the opportunity to speak for him/herself and instead attributing qualities, opinions and views that refer to one’s own identity and culture.”

Othering occurs to non-human subjects too. It also occurs in relation to our environments. This Othering of Nature has been discussed by thinkers such as Latour and Levi-Strauss; the Enlightenment enabled this dichotomy in order for humans to exploit nature to their own ends.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Emphasising intellectual and scholarly methods and using reason for gaining knowledge, the ideas of the Enlightenment worked against religious, spiritual or traditions of knowledge and thus elevated the European intellect to the highest status. One could argue that this set up the eventual split between the human world of reason and intellect, and Other worlds of spirituality or non-humans. Thinkers of the Enlightenment saw nature as a source to study and the wild as something to be controlled, to be subjugated under the will of humans, and thus the natural world could be exploited by human domination to suit their needs.

Othering as acts of bordering and of enclosing

Othering creates borders. We try to describe our environments using maps. We draw geography and delineate between this area and that. In essence, borders are made-up, imagined edges. They may make our map drawing a little easier and our politics more manageable, but they are still not real. Birds and animals have a sense of territory, sometimes, though perhaps not all of them. But certainly plants don’t stick to their own area in quite the same way; perhaps they have a more accidental way of landing and then surviving where the conditions are right. Animals, plants and birds all attempt to find a space in which the area and resources are what they need to survive. Humans carve out their territories for similar reasons, but there seems to be a more calculated motive, which can become about expansion for the sake of it, going too far with ideas of world domination. There seems more ego in it.

I love maps. They can be beautiful works of art and fascinating time capsules of a place. However they are also powerful, and as with all power theirs can be used or abused. A map presents a place from the perspective of the mapmaker. Every mapmaker has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, and this will depend on what the mapmaker thinks is important, corresponding to his or her own personal bias. Maps are all about drawing borders, identifying areas of particular characteristics, placing points of interest within contexts; sometimes imposing those contexts. Thus, maps can be tools of Othering. By creating maps of particular areas, we also create Other areas. 

Oliver Rackham writes of the changing maps of woodlands over the centuries. Ancient woods marked on maps appear now much as they were in earlier maps of 1580; zigzag outlines, boundaries that go around individual large trees, maps drawn to describe the natural boundaries set out on the ground, not from a draughtman’s office. Straight lines on maps do not appear until 1700, when woods started to be grubbed out or enlarged. These altered boundaries appear regularly curved or straight. 

“In Planned Countryside the irregular shapes of ancient woods sit awkwardly among the straight hedges laid out around them by Enclosure Act commissioners. In Ancient Countryside, the ghost of a grubbed-out wood may haunt the map as the irregularly-shaped perimeter of a ‘Wood farm’ whose internal hedges are anomalously straight.”

These imposed boundaries were due to Enclosures of land, and marking out forest areas as royal preserves. Gamekeeping in Britain specifically contributed to separating people from woodlands, unlike in France, Germany and Switzerland where “ancient woods are everyone’s heritage; in Britain alone have we lost that birthright, and with it our knowledge and love of the woods.”

Putting Nature in its place

And yet we do have a love for the woods, but I would argue that this is a different sort of love from the one that Rackham describes. For many of us, woodlands are like a brief flirtation rather than a commitment like marriage. We go to the woods to escape. We see them as places that are separate from our everyday lives, and that is why we love them. They are places for ‘nature’ and reserves for wildlife. We are happy with wildlife when it is in ‘its place’, in other words, not in our place.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 1. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 1
Photograph: Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Woodlands are often ‘other’ to the modern human world. They are a place of nature, a retreat, something to be preserved in a ‘natural’ and untouched state, not to be interfered with by human activity. They are to be kept for us to enjoy when we visit, but not to become part of our modern way of life. The two things are separate.

On the one hand this could be positive; the Othering of the natural environment means we have an urge to conserve it, to admire it, not to interfere with it too much, surely this is a good thing. However my view is that the Othering of nature means that we become more and more disconnected from our natural environments and from woodlands. They become a desirable thing for our leisure time, but there is a danger then that perhaps they are not a necessity when resources are scarce. Woodlands are valued and magical, they are precious to us in a way, like a beautiful object kept in a glass case. In my book Imagining Woodlands I have written about the Enchantment of woodlands and the notion that they are faeryworlds, or otherworlds. But these faery stories and folk tales add to the Othering of woodlands as distinct from the human world.

This has not always been the case. Once the woodlands in Britain were an important part of everyday human lives. People worked in and with forests. Woodlands were places of industry as much as leisure, where wood was gathered for a variety of uses, livestock were grazed there, and charcoal was produced as fuel. It is my belief that when woodlands were connected to us in this way, as something we lived on, relied on and thus valued, that the woodlands were more likely to be conserved by us as something essential. It was not Other. It was a part of us, and we were a part of the woods.

Our language contributes to this act of Othering. Our language both reflects and shapes the way we perceive things. It is almost impossible to speak about the natural world without Othering it – there I go again! Just by uttering those words, ‘the natural world’, I have made it separate from the alternative, the ‘human world’.  Yet there are cultures that do not have a word for nature because they do not see it as a separate entity, such as small scale communities in the Amazon and the Malaysian rainforests.

Othering woodlands: Enchanted 2. Photograph by Jo Dacombe
Enchanted 2
Photograph by Jo Dacombe © 2019 www.axisweb.org/p/jodacombe/

Currently there is a national drive to plant more trees, to mitigate the effect of imminent climate breakdown. To re-wild, and re-forest. But these things will not overcome the Othering of the woodlands. Perhaps planting new street-trees would be more effective; integrating swathes of trees into our everyday lives and right up to our front doors.

I grew up on a street called The Avenue. It was lined with large-leaved linden trees. Every day I would say hello to these trees, and watch as they sprouted new twigs at the base, bright red new sprouts that would bear pale yellow-green, large heart-shaped leaves. I would notice the colours changing with the seasons, fear the wasps that would gather in late summer to sip from the stickiness on the leaves, and worry about the black spots that sometimes appeared. I knew those trees well, and they were a part of my daily life. Now I’m older, I still feel a particular affinity with linden trees and I always recognise them and feel that strong connection. Other trees I have got to know since, but it has often been a more forced relationship, as I have felt I ought to know more species’ names and learn about them. But linden trees I grew up with, and I still miss them now that I live on a road without trees.

Perhaps a change in our language could help too. There is a fascinating section in Rackham’s book about the many Anglo-Saxon words for woodlands, many for which their specific meanings have been lost. These words demonstrate the greater connection they had with woodlands, and how they reflected the way they thought of woodlands in different contexts. For example, feld is an open space in sight of woodlands, with which to contrast it. A ley or a hurst appear to mean inhabited space surrounded by woodland. These words show how woodlands were a part of a wider, connected landscape, rather than a separated area on its own. Perhaps our language needs to expand to reflect this way of thinking again; to develop a lexicon to describe landscape relationships rather than separate features.

Old English consisted of a vocabulary of short words, and so used composite words to expand the vocabulary, which we know from the long saga poems such as Beowulf. For example, a whale is referred to as an ‘ocean-rider’, using two words combined to be descriptive of the animal. Often this was a way of creating the correct alliteration that was required by the poem, but it also produced beautifully descriptive new words.

I wonder if this is a way we could create new words to better describe our landscapes? To start to generate those connections between objects and surroundings, to embed things fully into the landscape and the way we speak of it? ‘Street-tree’ is one example, placing the tree in a particular type of location. How could we use words to better describe the different types of woodland? ‘Slope-spruce-holt’ for trees on a mountain side? (Holt being the Old English word for a wood of predominantly one species.) ‘Poplar-shimmer-shaw’ for the effect of a line of white poplar trees from a distance when the wind turns their leaves over to show the pale side? (Shaw meaning a small wood on a boundary.)

How would this way of using language change our relationship with the natural world around us? Would naming the specificity of woodlands make them more personal, more valuable, and better connect us to them?


Find out more

Jo Dacombe is currently creating a book of words and images called Imagining Woodlands, which will be available in 2020. You can read Jo’s earlier ClimateCultures post, Bone Landscapes, describing her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.

Oliver Rackham’s classic The History of the Countryside was originally published in 1986 and is to be reissued by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2020.

You can read Yiannis Gabriel’s 2012 post The Other and Othering – a short introduction at his website.

And you can explore The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (2017), published by Penguin. The book “seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us” and has generated a set of songs, available from the same site.

Jo Dacombe
Jo Dacombe
A multimedia artist creating work, installations and interventions, interested in mapping, walking, public space, sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects.
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Waters of the World – Stories in the History of Climate Science

Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.


2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes 


Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.

I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.

To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.

History of climate science - John Tyndall
John Tyndall. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.

So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.

The Forms of Water... published by John Tyndall in 1872
The Forms of Water… published by John Tyndall in 1872

A multidisciplinary science

I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.

This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.

I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.

What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.

A biographical history of climate science

As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.

There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.

My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.

We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.

History of climate science - Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds
Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. Source: The Schlesinger Library / NASA Earth Observatory

In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.

The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.

Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry: a history of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere
Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry – published by Scribe UK.

Find out more 

Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”

In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men.

Sarah Dry
Sarah Dry
A writer and historian of science interested in how narrative can create a bridge between people who hold different values about climate change.
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