Signals from the Edge #2: Wildfire and Fox

For the second in our series Signals from the Edge, ClimateCultures welcomes Brit Griffin. Brit is a writer living in Cobalt in Ontario, Canada: a town that was born during Ontario’s last mineral rush in 1903, a silver rush that was pretty much over by 1919. Brit's account is a powerful one of signals to be detected in forests burning and in the cry of a fox. 

approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes   


Wildfire and fox: dispatches from forests burning in Cobalt, Ontario

Summer 2018. Woken up by the smell of smoke. Summer night and the windows are thrown open, the wind sending traces of Temagami forest’s burning drifting into my room. The forests behind Elk Lake are on fire too. I don’t know it yet, not then in the night, but so is the faraway Arctic Circle. Does taiga smell the same as birch and jack pine when it’s burning?

Forests burning, Ontario
Photograph: Valerie Hosteller © 2018

It’s disorienting, the darkness, the smoke, at first I thought it was the stoked ashes from a dream, but then there is a shrieking and I am fully awake. Then I hear it again, riding these night breezes thick with carbon, insistent and piercing. It is, I think, fox.

I am used to her screams now — but still they are uncanny. She is calling through the darkness, and we all listen, me, dog, cat. At the window now listening. Is she far away or close to the house? Impossible to tell, the spooky cries passed from tree to tree. Just like a banshee’s wails along the valley. No wonder folks believed in such beings. The sounds tonight, stirred and mixed with the smoke, maybe belong biologically to fox, but are otherworldly too, spiritually something else.

But what? At one time, people might have recognized all of this with more ease. Folks had their nature spirits, saw forests teeming with magic. It would be standing room only on a night like this, what with the burnings and the keening.

Could be time to try and find those things again — the beings and the creatures that we have forgotten. That we can’t see anymore. That we cannot hear anymore. Cannot hear that sublime singing of the trees, each one with their own song, cannot hear either their ultrasonic distress signals when they are parched.

We used to listen to trees, talk to them even (and not in a ‘let’s put on Pachelbel and be nice to the jade plant’ kind of way). When nature was magic we would turn to its wisdom, seek solace from oak trees, leave tokens at deadfall for the spirits. The forest was not something to be managed, not a site of resource extraction, not a source of consumables. They gave us things, of course, the forest and the fields. Timber, firewood, plants, medicine, game and berries, but also wisdom, guidance in surviving, companionship. Everyone needed parts of everyone else.

Living so close, paying such attention, it changes the relationship. Like being in love.

But we can’t be close if we are on the outside looking in. As it is now, we are only visitors, not companions, equals, comrades in arms. Removing ourselves from nature, setting humans apart from that teeming forest of magic, was probably a mistake. Probably has landed us in this global fever.

Torpid waters. Coral reefs swooning with anaemia. Bring me my smelling salts.

Little creeks dry up, creeks for frogs and sprites. The sprites, of course, went extinct long ago. Many frogs are likely to follow. The triggers for frog mating are temperature and rainfall. All this dry, all this heat? Frog romance taking a beating.

So maybe the separation of the human from the non-human is a boundary or barrier we should try to dismantle. To see what seeps through. Because all those binaries — they are helpful in sorting objects and events into categories, organizing things. But we aren’t sorting our closets, we’re trying to salvage our world. None of them, human/non-human, life/death, magic/science, irrational/rational, can help me understand what fox is trying to say.

I can only hazard a guess:

fox says it is ultrasonic in the woods tonight,
wonders why can’t I hear it.

Red Fox
Photograph: Sue Nielsen © 2018

Note: Brit has also recorded a special video of her reading Wildfire and Fox, published simultaneously with ClimateCultures as The Summer the Planet Burned: Radio Free Cobalt:

Forests burning: context

Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Ontario, a town that was born during Ontario’s last mineral rush in 1903 — a silver rush that was pretty much over by 1919. Current population: around 1100.  http://cobalt.ca/visitors/history/

Temagami is a world-renowned tourist destination known for its wilderness lakes and old growth forests. It is also home, and always has been, of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai on Bear Island. Elk Lake, a town of around 500 people, survives mostly on its timber mill. 

Many sources which have expanded our understanding of the science on trees over recent years. Two interesting articles are: Trees Make Noises, and Some of Those Sounds Are Cries for Help by Rachel Nuwer for The Smithsonian (16/4/13), and Trees Have Their Own Songs, by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (4/4/17). As the Smithsonian article points out, “knowing what kinds of noises trees in distress produce means researchers may be able to target those most in need of emergency waterings during droughts.”

The Atlantic article is a review of David George Haskell’s 2013 book The Forest Unseen.

You can find out more about the forests burning in northern Ontario in this article from CBC, Radio Canada (19/7/18) by Benjamin Aubé, Some provincial parks in Temagami area closed due to forest fires could re-open soon, which reports a quadrupling of forest fires in the region. The fire was called the North Bay 72 and a good part was on the traditional territory of Temagami First Nation. You can read and hear a disturbing report on forests burning across the Arctic in this piece from CBC, ‘We ain’t seen anything yet’: Even the Arctic is burning as wildfires rage around the world’; it features an excellent interview with Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.  

The lands manager (Robin Koistinen) from Temagami First Nation said of the recent fire, on Facebook, “Mother Nature did some major housecleaning! In recent memory, no one knows of a larger fire on nDaki Menan, almost 28,000 hectares, there are 10,000 hectares in a Township! A township is 6 miles by 6 miles or 10 km by 10 km! So figure out the size of this fire in Square Kim’s, or miles! Big big Fire.” Her Facebook post includes this video footage flying over the damage from the fires. 

Sue Nielsen, who took the photograph of the fox, is reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, The Temiskaming Speaker. She takes wildlife photography around the area.


Signals from the Edge

Other contributions will feature at our Signals from the Edge page: so far, we have a short encyclopedia entry from the deep future, exploring the mythical species Homosagans; and this fox's cry from forests burning in the here-and-now... What will be our next signal, and from what edge?

Use the Contact Form to send us your ideas and maybe feature your own signal...

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? ClimateCultures offers Members a challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind but we overhear by chance; an artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create -- image, short text, sound, storyboard, dream sequence, or combination of any of these or something other – it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. 

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time, in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. 

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

The Polar Tombola

As the UK tour of The Polar Tombola draws to a close, ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell reports on this Arts Council funded project, which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages – and the environment recorded in their specialist vocabularies.

When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.

Kanungneq, letterpress-printed card and definition from The Greenlandic-English Dictionary, Copenhagen, 1927
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.

The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.

Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in “remote” locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.

My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.

A game of words

I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.

Hence The Polar Tombola – a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as “kagdleq” (thunder), “karnalak” (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).

To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.

Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.

“I hereby abandon this word”
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of “war” and “hate”) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word “kaggsuk” (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.

While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.

Back to books

At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.

In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word “dissever”, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word “Coxsackie”, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.

Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.

The Polar Tombola
Photograph: Caspar Evans © 2017
www.smallpublishersfair.co.uk

The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.

Find out more:

At nancycampbell.co.uk,  you can read more about The Polar Tombola project and you can order a copy of the book (print or digital), published by Bird Editions.

You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”

This recent article at Alaska Dispatch News is a report by Laureli Ivanoff from Unalakleet, on “Inupiaq, the language I can write and speak, but don’t understand.”

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an online edition, where you can browse through the languages, using combinations of search criteria and/or zooming in on the map.

The World Oral Literature Project documents and makes accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record.