Friday, 18 December 2009

Taking the Long View (in a Short Time)

Today's BBC Radio 4 "Thought for the Day" was COP15-focused, as these fascinating negotiations draw to a close. Abdal Hakim Murad's topic was, states the BBC's website, the claim that "Humility is needed to heal the environment." The scope of his short piece was of course considerably wider than that summary suggests, despite its compression into a strict 3 minute slot. Acknowledging climate change as "the defining topic of our times," Murad notes that politicians at the summit have been forced to extend their historical range, despite the fact that they are "not always famous for taking the long-term view." Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has pointed out that COP15's historical significance must be borne in mind, since this cohort of negotiators will be "blessed or blamed for generations to come." On the way to a point about humility, Murad has struck upon one of the defining features of cultural commentary on climate change - a fascination with various, often competing, temporal models. When he claims that the world is now divided not so much into "haves" and "have nots" but into "those that take the long view" and those that put off change, he suggests that it is attitudes to time that really make the difference in these negotiations, and in shifting (or failing to shift) attitudes to human responsibility in the face of our changing climate. If only Murad himself had had longer to expand on this interesting point.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Climate Change Is, Like, Such A Big Deal

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


An interesting talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the TED series is available here, on the topic of "The Dangers of the Single Story" (hat tip: Dusty Araujo). It's a simple premise: that the mono-vocal becomes the offensive, oppressive or downright dangerous, and Adichie carefully constructs her talk from a series of stories. Beneath the ostensible subject is a further point: that a single story leads to a failure of imagination and, ultimately, a failure of compassion. More fuel, then, for the argument that when tales of our changing climate come, they must come not in single stories, but in battalions.

Image: Karen Jackson

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Caught in the Web

Sad news today: “The internet is killing storytelling.” Recently there’s been much debate about the role of storytelling in helping us understand, and take steps towards managing / mitigating, the human contribution to our changing climate. Robert Butler, Alette Willis and Robert Macfarlane (following Bill McKibben) have all thought through the importance of stories in this context, and the issue has been a major concern of this blog. Yet the fact that the preceding sentences contain a number of links to other pages on the web demonstrates that a lot of the public discourse of climate change is taking place online. So while storytelling is crucial to understanding changing climates, and while a large proportion of the myriad debates on this issue take place on the web, the latter is anathema to the story. Why? Due to issues of temporality. While the web (as its name suggests) enables connections across previously prohibitive geographical distances, allowing debate across millions of miles, the appetite for quick as well as easy access prevents the telling of tales that unfold over a period of time in excess of the morning flit from blog to blog. While we associate the web with the futuristic and the cutting edge, it can offer (suggests Ben Macintyre in The Times) only glimmers and glimpses of stories about the future (or, for that matter, the past). Macintyre claims that “The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative.”

Macintyre’s claim recalls the public concern about the shift from the long-length undifferentiated format of nineteenth century newspapers, to the imaginative lay-outs and ad-heavy prints of the papers of the modernist period. There was concern that the newspapers were pandering to a public appetite for “minces and snippets” (claimed Edward Dicey, writing in 1905). Yet it was technology that facilitated the shift towards the new ways: roll feeders that allowed a swift flow of paper through the presses, ultimately enabling up-to-the-minute reports; new developments in typesetting; cheaper paper after customs duties were no longer levied per page etc. We have a familiar debate here: did the public demonstrate an appetite that was sated by the developing technologies of the press, or was the readership fed fragments until it became attuned only to that way of reading? If coherent narratives are our best chance of imagining our climate futures, and therefore a promising prompt to action, and if the web is the place where people increasingly head for information on climate issues, perhaps it’s time for “restorying” the web (to borrow Alette’s term) in the hope that public appetite for a nourishing narrative might be re-established. But as Macintyre states “The blog is a soap box, not a story,” so I dismount.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Verb with Its Sleeves Rolled Up

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

And Another Thing

Proving that there's more than one way to skin a...rabbit, Robert Butler over at Ashdenizen has another, more cheerful take on the "ACT ON CO2" campaign and the objections that have been made against it.

Drowning Bunnies

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

Haunted (Tree) House

Something to file under "interesting ideas" is the upcoming project Ghost Forest by artist Angela Palmer who, having grubbed up the stumps of mature trees felled for commercial logging in the forests of Ghana, will install those stumps in Trafalgar Square, and thence in Copenhagen (just in time for the COP15 climate talks). The project's aesthetic value and effect upon the viewer can only really be assessed once it's in situ, but that fact itself gets to the heart of what is being depicted here. To feel, to really respond, you have to "be there." And if "there" is a distant tropical forest then, much as you are told deforestation is a Very Bad Thing, your distance from the denuded forests themselves (assuming you live in the non-tropical regions) can assuage the feelings of compulsion to do anything to prevent the loss. There's a spatial contraction in "Ghost Forest" that puts you where the arboreal carnage is. But also - as the title hints - there's a temporal contraction here too, as the past is summoned up through individual acts of imagination, which will inevitably attempt to reinstate the missing trees. The ghosts will, as ever, be the result of human imagination, a painful reminder of a loss experienced in the past, now felt once again in the present, and perhaps also (as in the prophecies of ghostly figures) hinting at a forest-free future.

Wood, once its origin in a living entity is reiterated, seems at once more beautiful, but also more unsettling - it is hard to resist the anthropomorphic inclination to associate wood with flesh. This move is deftly achieved in Kathleen Jamie's poem "The Tree House," from the prize-winning collection of the same name. As a careful observer of the natural world and, not least, as the wife of a carpenter, Jamie is alert to the beauty of wood. But her poem also addresses the sacrifice of other living things that goes into the human effort to dwell:
Would we still be driven here,
our small town Ithacas, our settlements
hitched tight beside the river

where we're best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady's mantel, kids' bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we've knocked together

of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we've asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.

Image: Associated Press / BBC

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Great Ungreened

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

Future-Oriented, Radically-Imagined Polar Bears

In a 350-word statement commissioned by Bill McKibben’s, 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

Reading the Runes

When he read at the University of Edinburgh last week, poet and author John Burnside made some illuminating points about his own work. First, while he appreciates the problems that are inherent in using a “fallen” language, Burnside also likes to explore the conjuring capacities of that language, best represented by the figure of Orpheus, who is able to sing creatures into being. Second, he can identify only a few moments in his life when he has been able to “step outside” of this problematic medium of language: when taking LSD, and when experiencing certain states of mind brought about by phases of mental ill health. In relation to this second point, Burnside attributes his poetry’s repeated attempts to gesture towards meaning or pattern in the universe, without recourse to a named deity, to his status as a sufferer of apophenia – the tendency to assign meaning to randomly occurring events. Habitually reading the runes of the meaningless informational “noise” of the everyday, the apophenic can drift towards paranoia, but also towards elation (depending on the way the signs appear to tend).

Apophenia is one state among several connected to “magical thinking,” a form of thinking that can produce anomalous beliefs of causality, apparently supported by experience, but having no necessary basis in truth. This is not, of course, so very far from religion, which haunts the work of lapsed Catholic Burnside (who claimed last week to have “a crush on Presbyterianism”). The phrase “magical thinking” is perhaps most familiar not from the field of psychiatry but from the title of Joan Didion’s grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. In the latter, it is understood in its anthropological sense, as a belief that a series of rituals or behaviours can put off a terrible event, or alter what has already occurred. It is a kind of fantasy of control in an unresponsive universe. This anthropological interpretation of the phrase is of course also relevant to Burnside’s work, which contains many small, ritualistic gestures of tribute or hope.

Last week, the writer read in part from a work-in-progress, a novel set in the Arctic Circle. Given the notes above, it will be interesting to see how Burnside tackles the far North, these days more heavily freighted than ever with ideas of a sacred space under threat, carefully watched for signs of the planet’s fate.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Put Off Thy Shoes

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:

  1. An act of humility
  2. A punishment or penance
  3. A tribute (these first three forming parts of the pilgrimage experience)
  4. A ritual, often involving suffering (e.g. firewalking)
  5. An indicator of disenfranchisement via class, enslavement or other form of submission
  6. Therefore, a marker of poverty
  7. A sexual practice (thinking in particular of barefoot dancers)
  8. A claim to freedom
  9. A statement of nonconformism
  10. A claim to fashionable status (e.g. hippy chic)
  11. A spiritual act
  12. A claim of connectedness to the earth and, therefore, the Earth
  13. An act of mourning
  14. An indicator of innocence (e.g. unshod children)
  15. A mark of respect (removal of shoes in holy places)
  16. A means of treading lightly, in order to prevent harm (as in the Jain tradition)
  17. A marker of commitment to peace
  18. 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

It's a Dog's Life

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?

Image: MoneySign

Monday, 14 September 2009

Please Look After This Land

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

Once Upon a Time

All this talk of stories in relation to climate change, and it turns out Philip Pullman got there about thirteen years before the rest of us: "we'd all do well to remember that 'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart." Pullman was writing, in an article entitled "The Moral's in the Story, Not the Stern Lecture," on the issue of children's moral education, not specifically on issues of climate, but what an effective and concise way he found to express the role of storytelling in creating behavioural change. He writes:
"True moral education takes place whenever anyone, of whatever age, encounters a story with an open mind. Why else is the Bible full of stories? Why did Aesop tell fables instead of saying 'Thou shalt not'? Were the great teachers fools? They taught with the help of stories because stories work."

But there are pitfalls in the unthinking adoption of stories as a route to changing attitudes and behaviours, since "we might fall into the danger of assuming a mechanical connection. Hear this, behave like that. [...] It doesn't work like that." And several factors must be in place for the morally or socially transformative power of stories to be invoked:
1. "Stories work secretly, and almost never in ways we can predict."
2. "They work in silence."
3. "They work when they're given time."
4. "They work when they're left alone."
5. "They work when they're not explained"
6. "They work when a reader encounters a character whose fate rings true, and when a thrill of recognition makes the skin prickle or the heart pound."
7. "Good stories work better than bad ones because they're more interesting [...] they're richer. [...] They're built to last longer."
8. "They show that actions have consequences."
9. "they pass the time, they help us to endure."

Points 5, 6 and 7 seem of particular importance to stories of our changing climate, encouraging us to steer away from bald didacticism towards rich, complex tales that have aesthetic and artistic value as well as the ring of truth. Pullman notes in conclusion that, in educating children in moral matters (and, we infer, in educating any person of any age in relation to climate change) we need only three things: "books, time and silence." In this way, climate stories might be enabled to "help us to endure." With such stories forming an important body of ethically oriented work alongside climate science and policy reports, we might say that "The Moral's in the Story, Not the Stern Review."

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Answer, My Friend

Having spent the last week thinking about the potential of various forms of storytelling to mobilise action for the mitigation of climate change, I’ve been led back to a longstanding interest: the protest song. In this excerpt from A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Hugh Laurie sends up Bob Dylan, mumbling the end of the refrain “All we’ve gotta do is...” to indicate that, while protest songs have (or certainly had in Dylan’s '60s/'70s heyday) cultural caché, they rarely provide the answers to the calamities they catalogue. While Laurie’s performance works – the audience know the song tradition that is being sent up here, and they associate it with Dylan – his target seems mis-chosen. Dylan’s connection to bona fide protest songs was limited to the earliest stages of his career and, as archive footage of press conferences included in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) attests, he was not keen on the label “protest singer.” Dylan’s rejection of the chance to make explicit statements about his social and political beliefs infuriated some – Joan Baez’s “To Bobby” being perhaps the most heartfelt example of the left’s feelings of abandonment. Today’s environmental campaigners persist in adopting Dylan – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963) is consistently wheeled out as an early environmental campaign piece, a response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Dylan’s rejection of this reading is, it seems, of no consequence. The singer’s departure into thematically obscure and fascinating lyrics for the main body of his long career cannot save him from this uncomfortable “protest singer” tag. But Laurie’s performance is about more than the persistence of Dylan’s image as countercultural hero. It indicates that a song which laments contemporary predicaments has a responsibility to suggest solutions. Not doing so creates an empty gesture – one which is, apparently, laughable. This is a major issue, beyond the scope of this blog, but one which is worth considering in light of this week’s thinking about stories. How much emphasis can be placed upon “awareness raising” or protest in relation to climate change without sensible suggestions being made as to alternative policies or behaviours? Is this the job of art? Should we – must we – send answers blowin’ in the wind?

Monday, 22 June 2009

Telling the Times

On the 20th June springcoppice took part in a discussion entitled “Changing Climate Stories,” organised by Robert Butler (whose blog post here summarises our day), warmly hosted by ArtsAdmin and funded by Artists Project Earth. Robert’s post here gives a partial line-up of the sixteen writers, activists, journalists and academics involved in the discussion – an eclectic mix which was rather surprised to find itself on common ground in one particular way: it seemed we all had a lot to say about stories. The subjects covered, loosely framed by issues of displacement and migration, were wide-ranging, but storytelling recurred as our leitmotif. I wondered why that was. Were we preselected to be fascinated by narrative and by stories? Had the title of our discussion sent us all scurrying in search of the latest thinking on the links between storytelling and climate change activism? (We could start here if so).

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

Ecopoetics Rule 1: A Good Workman Always Blames His Tools

In searching for a new springcoppice “Poem of the Month,” I have been reminded of Andy Brown and John Burnside’s poetry collection Goose Music (Salt, 2008). Here the poets set out explicitly to address the question of how human beings might dwell ethically on the earth. An ecologically engaged collection, it explores the capacities of an ecopoetic mode to analyse and explicate relationships between human beings and the wider natural world. One poem, “The Other Brother – Part III: My Brother Audubon,” describes the undertakings of the great ornithological illustrator:
“The bird he sees and the bird he draws
are one. Which begs an inner silence,
shifting from the world of words
to the language of tone and line. 

He must forget the names he knows – 
neither ‘tail’ nor ‘wing’, nor ‘beak’ nor ‘claw’ – 
and simply more along the edge of each, 
with his eye set in his pencil-tip,   

thinking of no sound at all – save that of ink
on paper – to catch the truth
of their existence, out there, in the world.”
Throughout his career, Burnside has demonstrated a particular interest in the notion of language as a Fall from a direct relationship with the natural world. His work incorporates a fascination with Adamic naming, and the implication that the poet himself must always work with broken tools. Yet one of the most distinctive features of Burnside’s poetry is his rhythmic listing of plants, animals and features of the landscape. He appears torn between poetic cataloguing that is a kind of hymning, or perhaps incantation, and the notion that naming succeeds only in letting the described world escape.

In the poem “Taxonomy I: Flora,” Burnside notes that “looking always worked towards a word: / trading the limits of speech / for the unsaid presence.” In this reading, any act of articulation has an elegiac quality, since language displaces this presence of what remains unsaid. (The elegiac note is an appropriate one for the work of Audubon, who famously killed vast numbers of birds in order to accurately record their appearance.) Further, in “Taxonomy 2: Fauna,” Burnside reports that “Once we are close enough to give them names / we cannot help but treat them as our own,” one of the poet’s more explicit statements about the consequences of knowledge, inevitably framed in language, and its links to the use of the natural world as resource. The latter claim suggests that an ecopoetic work would necessarily acknowledge the faultiness of language, its displacement of the real and, most importantly, its unfair claims to environmental ownership.

In “My Brother Audubon” the problem of interceding language is side-stepped by the illustrator as he creates a link between his direct experience of the sight of a bird, and the picture he captures on the page. The closing down of the language gap – in which the witnessed bird is described in the mind, before being transcribed on the page – is indicated by the transfer of the eye to the tip of the pencil. Looking and touching / drawing “are one.” The pencil-point eye becomes an organ of touch and trace – it is epidermic, a particular modification of the skin. Yet while language must be removed from Audubon’s endeavours in order for accuracy of depiction to be enabled, such a practice is described through the medium of just this faulty, fallible language. The artist may be able to side-step words, but the poet(s) of course cannot.

In Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005) Richard Mabey delivers a credo: “I believe that language and imagination, far from alienating us from nature, are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging with it.” Ecopoetics must, then, continue to work with the only tools available, the broken ones of a language that claims false ownership, intercedes and ill describes. In doing so it must acknowledge this problematic toolkit. A good ecopoetic workman must always blame his tools.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Silence is Betrayal

A new film by documentary maker Nick Broomfield, A Time Comes is now available to view on youtube. It tells the story of the "Kingsnorth Six," Greenpeace activists who attempted to close the coal fired power station at Kingsnorth in 2007 as a protest against government plans to allow a second plant at the site, due for completion in 2012. The protesters were famously acquitted of an alleged £30,000 worth of damage to the station in May 2009. They had argued that the coal fired power industry's contribution to climate change constituted legitimate grounds for protest. Michael Wolkind QC, acting for the six, laid out the consequences of a reliance on coal, citing inevitable damage to:
"the Siberian permafrost and tundra regions, especially the Kola peninsula; the continental ice sheets; the Tibetan peninsula; the Yellow river in China, its banks and connected waterways; public and private property in Bangladesh; property belonging to or cultivated by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Senegal, Namibia and Mozambique; private and public property in coastal regions and inland waterways of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, including farm land producing crops; property belonging to the Inuit people of the Arctic, northern Alaska, eastern Greenland and Canada." (See his report here).
The case was considered a landmark one, essentially legitimating direct action which seeks to mitigate climate change, or promote further action in the interests of its mitigation.

Broomfield's film is named after a fragment of the line "A time comes when silence is betrayal," which it attributes to Martin Luther King. In fact, King was himself quoting a report from the executive committee of the organisation Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, at whose meeting he was speaking (1967). After making the foregoing statement, he goes on to say:
"The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy [...]. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do [...] we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on."
This inspirational advice applies as much to the Kingsnorth Six, and to today's activist / lobbyist community, as to King's '67 audience of the concerned.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Brink / Man / Ship (2)

London-based Spanish artist Gemma Pardo this year exhibited (in Nottingham and Hastings) a video work entitled "Finisterre." The video offered over- and under-water explorations of the coast of the English channel. "Finisterre" is a word I've been thinking about lately in relation to my previous post on brinkmanship. From the Latin Finis Terrae, land or earth's end, the word has always seemed evocative of the negotiations between land and water, not simply their meeting point. Further poetic resonances attach to the word through its appearance in the shipping forecast (although not, alas, since 2002, when the name for this sea area became the considerably less poetic FitzRoy). The word is perhaps most familiar as a French departement in Britanny, although it's interesting to note that the Breton term for that region is Penn-ar-bed, meaning not end of the earth, but "head of the earth." Such reverse perspectives are drawn out in Pardo's film. 

"Finisterre" is also one of the best known of Sylvia Plath's poems (in full here), which begins:
"This was the land's end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,
Cramped on nothing. Black
Admonitory cliffs, and the sea exploding
With no bottom, or anything on the other side of it, 
Whitened by the faces of the drowned."
Aside from ruining the operation of "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover" as a successful exercise in patriotic romanticism, the poem is also worth noting for its image of the last grasp of the earth - a real sense of the brink.

Monday, 8 June 2009


"In the Time of Trees" is a photo essay by Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, who has spent ten years photographing trees around the world. The title of the essay eerily anticipates a tree-less future, although the misquotation from Aldo Leopold subtitling one image suggests that Franklin is also asking the viewer to enter into the growth rhythms of his subjects, as Leopold famously did. The quotation should in fact read: "Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree - and there will be one." (A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, (1949) 2001). Leopold's account of planting and observing, "Pines Above the Snow," is a warm and humorous attempt to convey the wisdom of the trees. To modern tastes the author's approach relies rather heavily on anthropomorphic interpretations of tree growth and survival, but his understanding of the efficiency and adaptability of the pines, and his ability to observe their interactions with local flora and fauna are fascinating. Inevitably, Leopold creates a kind of growth ring of his own, in that his account of trees in the early 1940s is marked by awareness both of the economic depression that preceded this period, and the war that was to follow it. A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously, is above all an account of respect - for clodhoppers, pines, shovels and more.

Emergency Mechanic

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

Self Preservation

Having lamented the absence of a detailed account of the evictions executed in the formation of America's National Parks (see post here), I now discover that Mark Dowie's Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press, 2009) offers just such an account. Dowie argues that while the aims of the conservation movement had behind them an in many ways admirable moral imperative, their conflation of the "natural" with a landscape empty of humans resulted in the persecution of native populations. The subsequent displacement of such populations from their homelands, in areas including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Mesa Verde, was so agressively undertaken as to allow them to classify, in contemporary terms, as refugees.

In a recent article, Dowie suggests that a major source of the conflict between conservationists and resident peoples was "conflicting views of nature," along with "radically different definitions of 'wilderness.'" While recent attempts to understand the notion of the "wild" or of "wilderness" (in the work of Jay Griffiths, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane amongst others) may seem to be merely interesting exercises in philosophical history, Dowie's point suggests that a faulty or one-dimensional understanding of these terms can in fact have serious, widespread consequences over a lengthy historical range. His other important observation is that "the very landscapes they [the conservationists] seek to protect owe their high biodiversity to the practices of the people who have lived there, in some cases for thousands of years." Behind this claim is another - that man is himself an intrinsic part of the natural world, and any attitude or philosophical stance that suggests that nature stands outside man, and is available for his contemplation without consequence, is sadly misguided. While the motive behind such contemplative exercises might very well be the understanding of the self, creating emptied landscapes in order to faciliate insight is no preservation of the "natural" at all, and as such can provide limited insight into the human self, which can surely only truly be understood in relation to the natural world, other humans included.

(Image: Miwok-Paiute ceremony, Yosemite Park, 1872)

Friday, 29 May 2009

Brink / Man / Ship

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

"A Certain Just Quality"

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."

Verdigris: Greenwash of the Greeks

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.

Leave Only Yurts

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

Carteret Evacuation Latest

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. 

His Ear is On the Sparrow

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).