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)