Friday, 18 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Overheard recently on the bus: “And I was like, I like you so, like, I want to know whether you, like, like me too.” The constant use of “like” has become a cliché of “youth speak,” a kind of white noise getting in the way of clear and concise communication. Thinking about the way the word is used, it’s noticeable that it establishes a distance between the speaker and the scenario they describe – allowing the speaker to pose as observer of themselves – regardless of whether we are in the past tense (“And I was like…”) or what we can call the remembered present (“So I’m like…”). Expressing the most personal of responses, the speaker becomes a second observing self, undercutting their own narrative authority by introducing approximation – “I’m like…” implying “I said something a bit like / similar to / along these lines/ with roughly this attitude.” It’s a way of standing outside one’s interactions, a constant narrativisation process that turns each scenario into story fodder, a strange instant remediation of human experience. While usually read as simply a linguistic fashion that replaces pause words or sounds such as “umm” or “err,” “like” seems to me to be a product of a cultural mindset in which we are all encouraged to view ourselves again, the perpetual stars of our own reality shows.
In recent times, on this blog and far beyond, questions of the stories of our changing climate, and of the “narrative of climate change” have been raised. Coherent human narratives are now seen as the way to make an often abstract and incomprehensible scientific discourse into something that might be understood and (it is hoped) acted upon by the wider public. Narrative, in this sense, is seen as inherently positive – a means to understanding, a catalyst for action and an immediate and affective intervention. Yet the remediation inherent in the ubiquitous use of “like” lets us know that narrative can be treacherous – creating distance between ourselves and our actions. How can we make sure that narratives of our changing climate are not those from which we can step back, those that we view from an external position? These stories must be entirely owned, expressing a personal commitment and belief that must be transmitted to others. Because climate change is so, like, the biggest challenge that has ever, like, confronted humanity.
Update: Shortly after writing the above notes, I saw that Sam Wollaston has suggested (with tongue only partially in cheek) that a reality show version of the COP15 negotiations might be the way to engage the public in climate change discourse. Perhaps he’s on to something – maybe we can only take our narratives remediated these days?
Thursday, 12 November 2009
A major new exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society’s Kensington headquarters seeks to shed light on those who made vital contributions to the expeditions of the past, but whose names have been overshadowed by the glorification of lead explorers. The AHRC-funded “Hidden Histories of Exploration,” curated by Felix Driver and Lowri Jones of Royal Holloway, University of London, uses the extensive archives of the RGS (with IBG) to bring advisers, guides, porters, Sherpas and artists back into our accounts of famous historical explorations. If the names Mohammed Jen Jamain, Nain Singh and Juan Tepano mean nothing to you, this exhibition will help to explain why this is a grave oversight, but also how such an oversight is produced by our cultural reception of (white, male) hero explorers - an example of Adichie's single story problem. The effort to move these other, crucial participants in expeditions from the footnotes of the historical record to centre stage is ambitious and important. The exhibition is running until 10 December 2009, and an online version is available for those who can’t make the expedition to Kensington.
Image: Tenzing Norgay (Nepal), Edmund Hillary (NZ), Everest 1953. After their successful ascent, debate raged in the press as to who had first stood on the summit, and which country could therefore make the “first ascent” claim. In this case notes about feet threatened to assign one man to the historical footnotes, an outcome that Hillary resisted by claiming that they had completed the challenge as a team.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
David W. Orr is the author of the recently published Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (OUP). As his title suggests, one major theme of his writing and teaching is the squaring up to truth that is necessary to create broad cultural change as a means of tackling and adapting to environmental change. Central to this endeavour is the distinction between optimism and hope. In a short article for Conservation Biology, Orr states that:
“Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying or changing the odds. Optimism leans back, puts its feet up, and wears a confident look […]. I know of no good reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future, but I know a lot of reasons to be hopeful.”
The word hope has been brought to attention in activist circles by Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (2004), and in broader public discourse by Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope… (2006). Orr notes that hope:
“requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions. It requires a level of honesty, self-awareness and sobriety that is difficult to summon and sustain.”
Whatever the difficulties this is, Orr claims, just the kind of thinking necessary in the face of climate change. In this context, Obama’s “audacity” seems incorrect. While the term implies boldness, daring and bravery, it can also indicate recklessness and, as the OED suggests, a “disregard for consequences […] or morality.” If we are to be hopeful about our changing climate, it must be with consequences and morals very much in mind. Leaving audacity to one side, however, hope does seem a useful watchword:
“Authentic hope, in other words, is made of sterner stuff than optimism. It must be rooted in the truth as best we can see it, knowing that our vision is always partial. Hope requires the courage to reach farther, dig deeper, confront our limits and those of nature, work harder, and dream dreams” (Orr).
This rooting in the truth is, for Orr, crucial. The blindness of optimism, much as it prevents panic, cannot create change, since it avoids the sterner future vision of hope. Hope is never blind, although it may suffer a recognised partial vision. Orr writes, therefore, that as an educator “I […] earn my keep by perpetuating the quaint belief that if people only knew more they would act better.” Much as this view goes against recent evidence discussed here at springcoppice, perhaps we should all continue to hope that this greater knowledge / acting better relationship might again obtain, and that educators and storytellers (who “dream dreams”) will have a major role to play in forming this motivating connection.
Image: Obey Giant
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
A recent advert for the government’s “ACT ON CO2” campaign picks up on the need for climate change discourse to take the form of a compelling narrative, having the story of the changing global climate read as a bedtime tale. Putting anthropogenic climate change in the place where a fairytale might be is clever:
1. It foregrounds the disparity between the narrative dynamics of the traditional fairytale and our own, damaged world. While a fairytale provides escapism (albeit with a moral message) and traditionally neutralises supposed dangers by the end of the story (“Is there a happy ending?” asks the child in the advert), this story is far from ideal, and its ending is unclear. There is no comfortable reassertion of the social order here.
2. It makes use of the “timescape perspective” (Barbara Adam’s term) in emphasising the fact that our present decisions will affect our children rather than ourselves, and in drawing upon a traditional, long-established story structure.
3. It plays up the moral imperatives and establishment of normative behaviours that are at the root of traditional fairytales.
4. It allows the personalisation of the message by reiterating our dual role as stewards of the globe, and guardians of future generations.
However, the Guardian reports that the Advertising Standards Authority has received more than 350 complaints about the advert. The majority of these relate to the misguided belief that the scientific data are not sufficient to make a certain case for man’s contribution to climate change. Others state that the advert's tone is frightening and hectoring. The ineffectual nature of negative future scenarios as a spur to action has been well documented. While a grim future of drowning bunnies might be realistic, it is not the way to motivate the populace. The advert in fact breaks the majority of the rules of the Labour-leaning IPPR’s recent “Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour.” Something seems to have gone awry here. There is a mismatch between forceful narratives that draw on stewardship responsibilities, and the creation of behavioural change that will allow such responsibilities to be fulfilled. The cause of this mismatch appears to be the fact that moral imperatives are not a driving force (IPPR rule 9: “Avoid guilt…”). It is a great shame that a six million pound advertising campaign should so fall foul of the latest recommendations in cultural persuasion. It is perhaps an even greater shame that we are more keen to protect ourselves and our children from morally forceful advertising, and the sight of a drowning cartoon rabbit, than from the effects of a warming planet.
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Monday, 19 October 2009
Ten recommendations in the IPPR’s recent document “Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour”:
1. “Don’t focus on climate change"
2. “Focus on saving money now”
3. “Prevent the rebound effect” (in which people spend money saved through low-carbon behaviours on other, high-carbon practices)
4. “Talk about carbon pollution, not CO2 emissions”
5. “Satirise high-carbon behaviours”
6. “Make lower-carbon options desirable”
7. “Remember that being in control matters” (e.g. with regard to controlling personal energy costs)
8. “Make it fun”
9. “Avoid guilt and the ‘environmental’ label”
10. “Use messengers that ‘keep it real’”
What with this being a communications guide, it’s inevitable that it has something to say about the kind of stories we tell about climate change. But numbers 5, 8 and 10 open a role for storytelling (and appropriate / engaging storytellers) in a straightforward way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the document, however, is its insistence that the people who must be compelled to change their lifestyles in the interest of mitigating anthropogenic climate change are not currently operating in blissful ignorance. The discourse of public policy documents, journalism and activism in relation to climate change is beset by the notion that the world is currently suffering from a deficit in climate education, and that information-giving or awareness-raising strategies are the way to address behavioural change. “Consumer Power…” states that, in fact: “A lack of awareness of climate change is not the problem. Most people are aware, but awareness is not motivating enough. For many, climate change is just boring. […] Recognition of that should be the starting point of all communications efforts to encourage mainstream consumers to adopt lower-carbon behaviours.” It is pleasing to see this addressed directly and in plain terms. Too often, an audience for climate education or activism is sketched in the broadest terms, and its ignorance presumed. The vagueness of the sketch allows unpleasant assumptions about the class, educational level and political leanings of its constituents, the “great ungreened.” But the discourse of climate change is so widely promulgated that, as the IPPR’s report reflects, information fatigue is already kicking in. For this reason, the dissemination of facts is of only limited use. We are back, then, to stories; back to the move from “Thou shalt not…” to “once upon a time.”
Thursday, 15 October 2009
In a 350-word statement commissioned by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Rebecca Solnit hits upon several ongoing preoccupations of this blog: polar bears as the poster boys of climate change and indicative of synecdochic thinking, the temporal models of the discourse of climate crisis, and the possible role of the imagination in averting that crisis. Solnit begins: “Remember that twenty thousand polar bears are on your side,” a well-worn opening gambit, and therefore an odd choice of starting point for a piece that ultimately makes the claim that “what needs to be the most radical is your imagination.” She is not alone in beginning here, with reference to an animal with particular appeal, of course. The Scott Polar Research Institute’s excellent online archive of expedition photographs contains a section devoted not (as elsewhere) to specific expeditions, but to “penguins,” testament surely to the appetite of the press for these images as a kind of shorthand for our fragile world.
For Solnit, our responsibility in placing pressure on governments to make tough decisions for the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change (and the saving of the bears) is to shift our orientation away from the present moment, and consider the “tens of billions yet unborn who could live decent lives over the next several centuries if we get radical in this one.” In a recent lecture, inaugurating his Personal Chair in Ethics at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, Michael Northcott suggested that the Communion of Saints offers a model for this kind of trans-generational thinking, potentially moving us away from our status as “now people” (as defined in this recent IPPR report). The Communion connects the dead, the living and the unborn in a web of mutual responsibility (although, as Northcott noted, after the twelfth century this web was somewhat reimagined as a narrative, in which a foretaste of future paradise was available in the present). Solnit claims that the path to future-oriented activism is a radical imagination that contributes a vital emotionally compelling aspect to climate forecasting: “Scientists have described the inferno this world could become with runaway carbon levels. Will we let it happen because we could not imagine these glaciers melting […] these seas dying, these croplands failing, these famines taking away millions?” The role of the imagination within environmental activism, and in particular within climate change campaigning, has been much discussed in recent years, but Solnit’s piece, after an unimaginative beginning, finds a new way to frame what is at stake here: if climate change continues unmitigated, it will in part be the result of a failure of the human imagination.
Monday, 12 October 2009
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
This summer’s collaboration between poets Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella, published on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, draws attention to the sense of touch. Mel’s fourth poem in the series refers to the “Unconquerable eye, dux of body’s province” which, with its passion for sites and sights, is “A blight at the dying rootstock of body’s / Other charms.” The series was born out of the mutual agreement between the poets that travelling by aeroplane to complete readings was indefensible. The recalibration of the hierarchy of the senses that results in touch being foregrounded is therefore a product of the attempt to refocus on the regional, to reconnect physically and mentally with immediate surroundings. The capacity of the human body to be in touch with its environment through being restricted to its own, unmediated scope is hymned by these poems.
In a recent “green book group” session organised by the novelist and environmentalist Gregory Norminton, participant Alette Willis read from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan. Her chosen extract included an incident of barefoot walking, an episode that tied into the book’s contentions about the corrective that Native American thinking can offer to a Western culture that connects knowledge and intellect with the visual sense. Hogan’s approach to landscape is resolutely multi-sensory, but the barefoot walk is particularly resonant in that it enacts a range of emotions, states and intentions. To walk barefoot may, I think, be interpreted in the following ways:
- An act of humility
- A punishment or penance
- A tribute (these first three forming parts of the pilgrimage experience)
- A ritual, often involving suffering (e.g. firewalking)
- An indicator of disenfranchisement via class, enslavement or other form of submission
- Therefore, a marker of poverty
- A sexual practice (thinking in particular of barefoot dancers)
- A claim to freedom
- A statement of nonconformism
- A claim to fashionable status (e.g. hippy chic)
- A spiritual act
- A claim of connectedness to the earth and, therefore, the Earth
- An act of mourning
- An indicator of innocence (e.g. unshod children)
- A mark of respect (removal of shoes in holy places)
- A means of treading lightly, in order to prevent harm (as in the Jain tradition)
- A marker of commitment to peace
- A statement of elemental connection
There may well be more interpretations of the barefoot walk, some stemming from readings within other cultures that might contradict my own reading of the gesture. But crucially there is something about touch, and in particular about touching the land with one’s feet, that suggests both a connection to the regional, and a humble approach. Perhaps a barefoot walk is, at the metaphorical level, the way we should all choose to travel. As Exodus 3.5 has it: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”
Monday, 5 October 2009
Philadelphia, 1967. A flyer is found throughout the centre of the city. It reads: "On Friday at noon on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania we will use napalm on a defenseless dog to illustrate the horrors of this weapon. Innocent Vietnamese are being burned alive by this jelly-like gasoline, paid for by your US tax dollars." It was signed "Ameri-Cong." Before the appointed day, outraged Philadelphians voice their concern in public statements – the mayor, the chief of police, the ASPCA, local senator Joseph Clark. When 2,000 people arrive at the University, the majority to object to the cruel treatment of the dog, many others to observe what promises to be a fracas, they are handed further flyers reading: "Congratulations. You have just saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of thousands of innocent people in Vietnam?" It was the largest anti-war demonstration that Philadelphia had ever seen.
This incident now forms a central part of the life story of Kiyoshi Kuromiya - activist, AIDS educator and campaigner, friend of Martin Luther King and Buckminster Fuller. I was reminded of it when reading a recent Guardian article on species-specific concern, in which Mark Wright of the WWF argued that certain animals have the emotive power that can mobilise action. How very sad that, in this instance, a single dog was the catalyst for concern, succeeding in eliciting moral outrage where thousands of fellow human beings had failed. Many further questions are raised by this story. While "climate change is the new Vietnam" is an inappropriate conflation, several of these questions seem to be pertinent to contemporary attempts to change attitudes to climate, in part for the protection of innocent people many miles from the West:
1. Were those that came to protest guilty of "hippy shit," as recently defined by Tim Smit (hat tip: Robert Butler), i.e. were they channelling energy into the comparatively inconsequential and ignoring the large, painful steps necessary to mitigate a greater problem?
2. Was this a case of what is commonly referred to in today's climate change discourse as "fiddling while Rome burns"?
3. Were they suggesting that such exercises of comparison are invalid, and that any suffering, including that of a single dog, must be stopped?
4. Were they exercising their capabilities in stopping a smaller evil partly in response to feeling powerless in stopping a greater one? Should their contribution on the smaller scale be applauded?
5. Did their perceived powerlessness stem in part from the fact that the (Vietnamese) victims of the Vietnam war were distant from them? Did the case illustrate the effects of “externality,” a recognition that costs were being paid at a distance from the decision-makers and the by-standers?
Kuromiya anticipated the outrage that would accrue to an act of cruelty in the neighbourhood, effectively drawing out the anger that he felt should be present in the city about the continuing war. To gather those people in one place to point out the strange ethical calculations that had brought them out of their homes to defend a single dog, was a stroke of genius. As COP15 approaches, will the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change bring people onto the streets? And what threatened loss will call them there?
Monday, 14 September 2009
springcoppice apologises for the long period of radio silence. I’ve been in the Pacaya Samiria, the largest national reserve in the Peruvian Amazon, co-leading an expedition of young people from around the UK with the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES). Some field updates are available on our blog here, but once our zap email connection failed we were reduced to telegrammatic messages by satellite phone, so when it comes to written reflection on our activities, that’s going to have to happen after the fact, here and elsewhere.
The post-expedition blues are a well-documented phenomenon, and many of our young explorers are reporting feeling very flat now that they’re back in the UK. But the period after a long time away offers a great opportunity to do a lot of careful thinking about the expedition experience – thinking that simply isn’t possible when you’ve got food, clean water, shelter etc. to worry about, and when (in our case) there are 62 of you on two fairly small boats up the Amazon. This post-expedition reflection phase can be a difficult time, but it’s an important one.
BSES is committed to the completion of meaningful scientific projects on all of the expeditions it puts into the field each year. This year we were assisting a team of Peruvian scientists from the University of Iquitos in gathering biodiversity data. The information is given to the authorities of the national reserve, and helps make the case for the ongoing protection of the region. This worthy cause has to be reiterated at the more tedious moments in our survey work – baking under the sun in a boat, drifting down river looking for turtles for many hours, it’s important to remind yourself how your efforts will ultimately be used in the maintenance of the area’s status as protected land.
While our expedition is given meaning by this scientific context, the Pacaya Samiria’s designation as a national reserve is not to be accepted unquestioningly. During our expedition we were keen to find out about the people who were displaced from their land, by military force, in 1970 in order for the government to establish this reserve. While our contemporary notion of the rainforest as the “lungs of the Earth” chimes with an attempt to protect and conserve the Pacaya Samiria, questions must be asked about the complex web of motivations that actually contribute to conservation status for any area of land. Rumours abound of government interest in this region’s natural resources – predominantly wood and oil, the very industries that, along with agribusiness, place the rainforest under greatest threat.
The people previously resident in the Pacaya Samiria were mostly of the ethnic group Cocama-Cocamilla. Since the 1970s, many of them have stayed within approved villages near the edges of the reserve, close to their hereditary land, but given only restricted access to its resources. Many more have left the area for Iquitos and Lima, beginning an entirely different way of life. For those that have stayed, the negotiations with the park authorities have not been easy. It is the Cocama-Cocamilla people that know this land best, and yet their levels of education in matters of policy and government cannot compete with those sent from Lima to run the reserve. Many C-C people are determined to work for the reserve, helping to protect and monitor its resources, but they are limited to guarding and guiding roles, while those with real power are imported from the capital. This educational gap will only be filled when external scholarships are available, so that C-C people can achieve the necessary degrees to take powerful positions within the Pacaya Samiria. There is great sadness and anger amongst C-C people and their friends that the lands of their forebears are being controlled by those who, by dint of background, do not understand the way of life that persists, in displaced and modified form, within the reserve. But there is hope, too, that by forming alliances with organisations beyond Peru, some of these problems might be shared with the world. The people of the Pacaya Samiria want the land protected – a situation such as that in Bagua is to be avoided at all costs. But the designation of a reserve, for all its protective powers, is not a simple matter. Our primary job in the Amazon this summer was the monitoring of birds and mammals, but it was by factoring people back into the equation that we really came to understand the contested status of any conservation area.
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
Friday, 26 June 2009
Monday, 22 June 2009
I want to suggest that links between climate change and stories are deeper rooted than this; that the story – any story – and the discourse of climate change are logical bedfellows. A story is constructed in language and unfolds over time; whether spoken or written it is particular to its teller and that teller’s locale; each retelling shifts its meaning, each new audience its interpretation; it charms and persuades; it has the power to captivate and bewitch. To consider climate change is also to consider language. The language used to describe the concept of climate change is itself contested – are we dealing with “global warming” or “global heating,” “climate change” or “climate catastrophe”? Are those displaced by a situation exacerbated by environmental factors “refugees,” “climate migrants,” or “forced climate migrants”? Climate change, as it is represented in scientific, popular scientific, journalistic or creative work, is also a matter of history, of unfolding. Climate science attempts to predict the future, with competing models vying for the greatest claim to accuracy. Campaigners rely upon sand timer models which implore both the public and the policymakers to appreciate that time is running out. Those that deny the scope of the human contribution to climate change do so through the suggestion that the past has been misunderstood, and the future misforecast. Popular scientific and journalistic discourse is filled with tipping points, apocalypses and imagined futures.
In this narrative landscape, of course our stories – poems, novels, plays, memoirs, essays – will approach issues of history, time and memory in an unprecedented way. While the formal revolutions of postmodernism created narratives in which time became uncertain, such strategies often resulted in a breaking of the narrative frame – we were invited to think again about the nature of storytelling, of the status of the story as a constructed, open ended work. Today, our narratives play with time in response to the overarching question of climate change – the priority has shifted from the storytelling itself, to the tale told, the message of the story, and the likely responses of the reader. This imagined future on the smallest scale – the future anticipated thoughts and actions of the reader of or listener to the narrative – is the point where storytelling meets activism. Stories have the advantage over scientific data in this respect. While science has the analytical tools to predict the future, beyond modelling it cannot imaginatively inhabit the future it predicts. This is where stories come in.
Andrew O’Hagan’s description of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as “The first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation” is a problematic one due to the uncertain cause of the apocalypse it depicts, but it is interesting because is suggests a) that a new trend of fiction has arisen in response to our increased awareness of impending environmental catastrophe, and b) that there is a generation of the globally warmed – a generation that understands itself as such, that situates itself in history by association with an environmental predicament that is considered, in all discourses, as in part a matter of the control of time through accurate forecast and prediction. This is, then, an era in which our stories rethink issues of temporality in response to the discourse of climate change. In doing so, such stories take up imaginative residence in a future that science can predict, but cannot make vivid. To tell a story, as we agreed on Saturday, is to perform an action. But more than this, we are in an era that is, as a result of these journeys into the future, peculiarly self-reflexive. We look back at our present efforts to address climate change, to tell adequate stories about that process of change, with the critical eye of our imagined future selves. What we discovered on Saturday was that we all – as various kinds of storyteller – had an acute sense of our place in a globally warmed generation.
Thursday, 18 June 2009
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Monday, 8 June 2009
Timothy Morton, author of Ecology without Nature, is about to publish a prequel to that monograph, The Ecological Thought. A new series of films available on Morton’s youtube channel explains the concept of the “mesh” that is central to this new book. Combining literary history, linguistics, philosophy, biology, biochemistry and computer science, the book will use the mesh metaphor to explain the interconnectedness of elements of the “environment.” The latter term, according to Morton, is not to be trusted, replacing as it does the Romantic notion of Nature – both “environment” and “Nature” have to be unthought, he argues, in order for our interrelatedness with other elements of the world to be properly understood. Only after the repair of broken thinking can a way out of our present ecological predicament be found. Morton is a careful, comprehensive and generous-spirited thinker, a kind of emergency mechanic for broken thoughts, and his new book is hotly anticipated.
Friday, 5 June 2009
(Image: Miwok-Paiute ceremony, Yosemite Park, 1872)
Friday, 29 May 2009
In a recent RSA-sponsored collaboration between poets Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella (here), the word “brink” makes an appearance. Mel is a poet interested in, amongst other things, mining the English language for resonances associated with place and landscape. She reminds us that “brink” is an “East Anglian Fen dialect term for riverbank.” Attempts to evoke the Fens, and in particular the uneasy relationship between man, land and water in that landscape, have challenged writers and musicians in recent times. Perhaps the most famous example is Graham Swift’s prize-winning novel Waterland, but other Fen-dwellers have undertaken similar endeavours – Robert Macfarlane’s recent radio essay looked at musical (The Great Fen Project), and poetic (Benjamin Morris) elaborations on the region.
The term “brink” remains in common usage, although it is now perhaps most often used in a metaphorical sense, indicating not geographical but temporal transition – a point (or, more accurately, moment) of no return. The OED confirms that “brink” refers to an “edge, margin or border,” often involving a steep drop, and that its secondary sense relates specifically to “the edge of land bordering a piece of water.” A further historical usage has the term refer to the edge, or brim, of a vessel. It can be no coincidence that Brinkley is a Cambridgeshire village, given that county’s shifting lands, multiple waterways and numerous boat-dwellers.
The various uses of “brink” are drawn together in the related word “brinkmanship.” The latter term denotes a brave (or foolhardy) attempt to advance “to the very brink of war” without actually engaging in battle. But the addition of the “-manship” suffix creates a portmanteau word that combines “brink” (point where land meets water), man (person negotiating the land / water borderline) and “ship” (means of making a transition from one element to another). “Brinkmanship” might very well be used to refer to our current attitudes to climate change, concerned as we are with tipping points and projected futures. But the term has additional implications if we borrow Mel’s Fenland use of “brink” and return “brinkmanship” to its roots in the negotiations between man and landscape. The two interpretations of brinkmanship suitable for our times – the arrival at the point of (climate) war, and a means of working with the natural environment – are not of course unrelated. Particularly if we factor in the issue of sea level rise…
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
I somehow missed John Burnside's "Jura Diary" when it was originally published in The Scotsman at the end of last year. The Scottish Book Trust, who funded the writers' retreat which Burnside recounts, have now posted the diary here. It includes the following musings on sound, a recent preoccupation of springcoppice (here; here):
"The writer's first concern is attention to sound. Not to marks on the page, and - for the poet at least - not to questions of meaning. It might seem mystical to say so, but I do think meaning emerges from the sound. [...] And what of the word 'sound' itself? It's one of my favourite notions: a magical, immensely rich feature of coastal waters, the word for what my trade is all about, and one of the aptest ways of talking about things being right, about a certain just quality to a thing, or a person or an event. She's sound. This boat is sound. All the joy of using language can be summed up in that use of the word."
In a preview of his forthcoming book The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, Douglas Brinkley states that “over the years, Roosevelt has been denied his environmentalist due.” TR provides something of a challenge to those seeking to redress this balance and trace his “green” convictions, as Brinkley himself admits. Certainly, TR was instrumental in establishing 230 million acres of protected wilderness in the United States, and famously collaborated with John Muir and the Sierra Club in their efforts to preserve wild land. Muir’s wilderness walk with the president in Yosemite (pictured) is a crucial part of the mythology of both men. But TR’s passion for hunting, alongside his approval of both the Roosevelt Dam in Arizona and the Panama Canal project, make his respect for the natural world inconsistent to say the least. We must hope that Brinkley’s book addresses such issues in depth, even at the expense of its own thesis, and that it also considers the fate of resident communities and homesteaders asked to clear the National Parks.
The book, due out in June, rides the crest of a green publishing wave, as well as tapping into America’s fascination with its past presidents. The title’s evocative use of “warrior” and “crusade” buys into TR’s own penchant for patriotic military rhetoric, a hangover from his Cavalry Rough Riders days. It would be pleasing to see a less acquiescent approach within the book itself.
Our environmental heroes are often problematic – our attempts to “green” historical figures, even more so. This is particularly true of those whose great power and responsibility pull their morality in conflicting directions. We might consider the green patina retrospectively applied to these figures to be a kind of verdigris. The latter suggests a venerable age – these figures, we argue, have been green for a long time. The process of making verdigris (literally, the green of the Greeks, that used by Greek artists) is far from natural, however. One such process, dating from the Middle Ages, was to bury treated copper in dung. The shit was scraped off; the green remained. An unstable pigment unless bound in oil, verdigris fades when exposed to light. Perhaps Brinkley might contemplate the instructive example of verdigris on the eve of publication.
Today’s article about the Guardian-sponsored yurt being used for interviews at the Hay Festival got me thinking about the yurt as a structure for our times. The Turkic word “yurt” refers not to the wood-and-felt tent itself, but to the imprint left on the land once the tent is gone, packed up and relocated by its nomadic owners. By extension the term has come to mean, for its Central Asian users, not only tent or home, but kin and homeland. A connection not just to the immediate landscape but also to nationhood is indicated by the use of a stylised version of the yurt’s crown in the Kyrgyz flag. Traditionally the crown (or “tyndyk”) is passed between generations of a family, whatever the other modifications made to what is, in essence, a temporary structure.
The Turkic term “yurt” does not refer to the tent itself, then. Reference to the physical structure has accrued to the term, or its synonyms, in other cultures. The Turkic-speakers are on to something, thinking primarily of what we might today term their environmental footprint, and of the associations formed within their families and communities, inter-generationally. It is in part the nomadic lifestyle that allows a focus on the landscape and its resources, as well as bonds beyond the material – if you are forever to lose the particularity of place, and if the precise structure of your shelter has an element of contingency, your notion of home must be understood through other means.
The fashion for yurts has increased in the Western world since the 1970s, often billed as a sustainable way of living. Yurts play a crucial role in many eco holidays. We would do well to remember that the word itself reorients the yurt-dweller towards the structure’s physical (and emotional) footprint - a connection between dwelling and earth.
(Illustration: Mongolian Ger construction sketch by P.R. King)
Monday, 25 May 2009
Tonight at 9pm on BBC Radio 4, "Costing the Earth" focuses on the evacuation of the Carteret Islands (details here). Dan Box (mentioned on springcoppice here; his blog here) has contributed many of the sound recordings for this documentary, following his recent return from the Islands. Dan's Royal Geographical Society-funded project will result in his own documentary for the BBC, due for broadcast later this year.
Two rather beautiful sound documentaries made by Roger Deakin, one about his timber-framed house, one about his very hospitable garden, are available to listen to here (thanks Christopher Jean-Marain). Deakin, a writer, documentary maker and, by all accounts, excellent friend, made many attempts to capture and convey his relationship with the natural world. The sound documentary seems a more promising medium for such an endeavour than has yet been fully recognised. Further discussion of Deakin's life and work can be found in a very moving obituary by his close friend Robert Macfarlane (here).