Thursday, 30 April 2009

Mass extinction and evolution

I blame Beowulf for my forgetting to post about Save the Frogs Day on Tuesday. Here, belatedly, is a link to a fascinating video about what is happening to amphibians today, ‘the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs’ as the filmmakers say. The Thin Green Line explores the different causes of frog death intelligently, including chytrid, changes in land use, climate change and pollution of watercourses. An unexpected pleasure is the opportunity to hear from scientists working around the world to protect species. I was moved by these individuals’ sensitivity and heroism.

So rather than repeating the tragic facts about this die-off I thought it might be worth exploring the issue of how man-made extinction relates to evolution. You don’t have to talk to many people about extinction before someone says, but isn’t that evolution? It emerges in the comments of this excellent site every now and then. The argument goes, the species dies because it isn’t ‘fit’ enough and it isn’t our role to interfere. I’ve been trying to shape some responses to this argument but am very curious to hear any other views on the subject. Here are mine:

1. Responsibility

The mass extinction taking place now is anthropogenic, directly caused by humans. It sounds simple to say we shouldn’t interfere with the process but it is our interference that is causing the deaths in the first place.

While we are merely animals participating in evolutionary processes we have also developed consciousness about ourselves and our actions, which means we can take responsibility for our behaviours. In this case we know we are killing other species so have to ask whether that’s something we want to do. It doesn’t make any difference that those species would eventually die in the course of evolution, just as mortality doesn’t justify murder.

2. Pace

The changes we are bringing about in land use, climate, introduction of invasive species and extraction of prey or pest species from ecosystems are happening at such a rapid pace that species cannot respond to them by evolution. Evolution is just too slow. In fact the changes in climate and land use are happening so fast that species cannot even respond by migration because of the slow rate at which plants travel (this is really well explained here).

3. Evolution

It’s obviously tempting to use the concept of evolution as if it was thoroughly understood with a brief reference to survival of the fittest and the selfish gene. It’s not really surprising that those aspects of the idea became so persuasive in colonial nineteenth-century Britain and the capitalist west. Evolution is a scientific theory of real beauty, of the sort that once you hear it it’s hard to understand why it took so long to discover, but that doesn’t mean that its processes are fully understood. We get a bit confused when using the word ‘fit’ as if it referred only to athletic über-species rather than to the ones that are most ‘fitting’. In a society less governed by cultural prejudice (or the belief in a worldwide movement towards a single type of society under the banner of progress) and by financial greed perhaps Lovelock’s Gaia theory would have been taken more seriously. He believes that climate change will prove him right, the terrible experiment to test his theory, and it may be so. At any rate, there are other and more complex models for evolution than the selfish gene, theories that consider species from an ecological or group perspective, such as Edward Wilson’s work on superorganisms.

Among the many blessings marriage to a string-theorist has brought has been the chance to learn how a theory that describes the world can be a thing of real wonder. But that doesn’t make such a theory a conceptual endgame. In fact I think an idea like evolution or the second law of thermodynamics moves my husband far more than any poem can move me (even Beowulf), partially because of those ideas’ inherent truth and elegance, but perhaps also because, just as thrilling, they suggest more thinking to be done, that there are more such ideas out there.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Old darkness

As the summer term begins I’ve started teaching Beowulf, which means while the chestnut trees are towering with blossom we're meeting again the darkness in that poem, not only a world edged by monsters but one in which people, facing monsters, ask what their own lives are. It’s possible to see the poem as an archetypal story of man against nature. Hrothgar builds his glorious hall and draws the anger of the monster Grendel who comes to kill at night, ‘of more under mist-hleoþum’ (off the moors, under mist-cliffs). Of Grendel and his mother we learn

… They dwell apart

among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags

and treacherous keshes, where cold streams

pour down the mountain and disappear

under mist and moorland.            (Heaney’s translation)

 … Hie dygel lond

warigeaþ, wulf-hleoþu,            windige naessas,

frecne fen-gelad,             þaer fyrgen-stream

under naessa genipu            niþer gewiteþ,

flod under foldan.

Walls can’t keep them out and trusted swords won’t kill them. When Beowulf sails across the sea to drive this darkness out of Hrothgar’s home not only does the poet repeatedly blur the identities of his hero and the monsters by using the same words to describe them, we also learn that the society he comes to save will be destroyed by human treachery and feuding. Ultimately the hall whose hinges and joints were forged in fire will be destroyed by fire. And at the end of the poem theft of cursed gold buried by the last survivor from a massacred community wakes the dragon. Again Beowulf’s sword will not kill it, and again we learn that this battle will be followed by the destruction of a kingdom tangled in a blood feud (this time it's Beowulf's kingdom). This is why the darkness Beowulf fights in the poem can’t be nature or even wildness, but something more difficult to name, at home in human society and the human mind.

In the poem's landscape people build their halls and bury their gold surrounded and driven by forces they can’t control, barely understand, but always know. For being so stark a vision the figures loom larger within it, which is why we remember Beowulf’s wise, regretful bravery going to face the dragon he understands will kill him. Tolkien described the poem as ‘a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo’, moving us, ‘until the dragon comes’.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

All places are for quests

Last summer I saw by chance Christopher le Brun’s haunting collection 50 Etchings at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. These etchings were densely drawn sequences of motifs: a man on horseback at a wood’s edge, discovering a tower in a forest, looking into a well or leaving a city of clustered walls and pinnacles. There are often strange effects of light, figures approaching in front of a sunrise or emerging from shadows of massed lines.

Christopher le Brun, The Given

This comment accompanied his etching of The Given: ‘Time and again, a rider, a metaphysical paladin approaches a castle. His search stands for a Northern painter’s riposte to the challenge of Picasso’s much quoted ‘I do not seek. I find.’ In the North, with its obscuring and elusive light, its hollow hills and forests, travellers of the imagination have, as their ultimate legend, by contrast, the search for the Holy Grail.’

Christopher le Brun, An Imaginary City

I often think of these images passing by this city’s domes, towers and walls.

But also last week when walking through an oak wood on a Lake District hillside.

I love the way his etchings drift between the human and the natural, suggesting narratives of shadow and illumination, filled with meaning in every place. For me they suggest how arbitrary the boundaries we build can be, between the real and fantastic, city and forest, the profound and the quotidian. I took the photo below on the cycle path across the marsh that lies between our flat and the city centre. If we're on a quest we have to be open, to seek and to come to the world.  

Twentieth-century philosopher Martin Buber wrote in his essay 'Dialogue': 

'Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive. But the risk is too dangerous for us, the soundless thunderings seem to threaten us with annihilation, and from generation to generation we perfect the defence apparatus. All our knowledge assures us, "Be calm, everything happens as it must happen, but nothing is directed at you, you are not meant; it is just 'the world', you can experience it as you like, but whatever you make of it in yourself proceeds from you alone, nothing is required of you, you are not addressed, all is quiet." ... The signs of address are not something extraordinary, something that steps out of the order of things, they are just what goes on time and again, just what goes on in any case, nothing is added by the address. The waves of the aether roar on always, but for most of the time we have turned off our receivers.'

Monday, 13 April 2009

Wytham Woods in April

Our Easter weekend was very grey until today but this afternoon Wytham's hazel-woods were illuminated:

But there are lots of other flowers blooming, including sweet violets, wood-sorrel, lesser celendine and primroses.

We also saw two hares and some signs of badgers (the paw prints leading into this set, I think).

The sycamores are a refreshing bright green...
and we saw these hopefuls springing up where a silver birch had fallen.

There are lots of lambs in the fields around the wood. Last week we saw a sheep giving birth there, but this one looked a bit more photogenic.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

New nature poetics

Following the post about literature and climate change I went back to Gary Snyder’s thoughts about wildness in ‘Unnatural Writing’ (in A Place in Space) where he argues that  ‘the “art of the wild” is to see art in the context of the process of nature – nature as process rather than as product or commodity.’ He finds wildness in the mind and language, recognising that these work in similar ways to interconnected and complex ecosystems. An art of the wild ‘serves to acknowledge the autonomy and integrity of the nonhuman part of the world, an “Other” that we are barely beginning to be able to know’.

Here is his 1992 manifesto for the art of the wild:


  • That it be literate – that is, nature literate. Know who’s who and what’s what in the ecosystem, even if this aspect is barely visible in the writing.
  • That it be grounded in a place – thus, place literate: informed about local specifics on both ecological-biotic and sociopolitical levels. And informed about history (social history and environmental history), even if this is not obviously in the poem.
  • That it use Coyote as a totem – the Trickster, always open, shape shifting, providing the eye of other beings going in and out of death, laughing from the dark side.
  • That it use Bear as a totem – omnivorous, fearless, without anxiety, steady, generous, contemplative, and relentlessly protective of the wild.
  • That it find further totems – this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must each investigate. ‘Depth ecology.’
  • That it fear not science. Go beyond nature literacy into the emergent new territories in science: landscape ecology, conservation biology, charming chaos, complicated systems theory.
  • That it go further with science – into awareness of the problematic and contingent aspects of so-called objectivity.
  • That it study mind and language – language as wild system, mind as wild habitat, world as a ‘making’ (poem), poem as a creature of the wild mind.
  • That it be crafty and get the work done.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Writing for change

Oxford’s Literary Festival included a panel on writing and climate change last week with an interesting range of speakers: non-fiction writer Jay Griffiths, diplomat and policy maker John Ashton, novelist Philip Pullman and director of Tipping Point Peter Gingold.

Of these Ashton was the most outspoken on the need for cultural discussion of climate change. He deployed the now familiar comparison between climate change and war (that this emergency needs to be approached in the same way). He warned, ‘if it doesn’t feels like a war, that’s because we’re not winning’. He said we needed ‘weapons of the imagination’ in our mobilisation, not propaganda but attention to the human condition through the dilemmas of climate change. According to Ashton we need one thing to see the enemy in this war, a mirror, and ‘art makes the mirror’.

Some members of the audience were uncomfortable with the war metaphor but he defended it in terms of the need for single-minded deployment of resources and because it clarifies that dealing with this problem involves confronting power. Ashton was highly articulate on this and other subjects discussed. It was heartening to encounter an individual like this at the heart of our government (he’s Foreign Office Special Representative for Climate Change), although also puzzling given recent priorities.

The writers were diffident about the subject. Griffiths described her artistic side as ‘disobedient’ (it will not be told what to do) while Pullman felt that artists can’t use opinions. (Not even atheism?) He claimed to see creativity as a process of solving technical problems. It’s an interesting dilemma.

My own feeling about this is that today’s artists can’t actually avoid this subject because it permeates so many aspects of the way we live now. If a novel includes a flight, any weather, a shopping trip, a description of trees then the subject is in some form present. In literary studies we’ve long been used to analysing the way writers approach gender. It doesn’t matter whether the writer studied thought they were conveying opinions about ‘feminism’ since inevitably they wrote about men and women and it’s how they did so that’s interesting. Similarly writers must represent people in their environments so their work will necessarily be relevant to climate change (becoming Ashton's mirrors).

It just so happens that right now we are experiencing a crucial moment in our relationship with nature, which is why it could be such an exciting subject in twenty-first-century culture. Gingold’s Tipping Point looks to be a forum in which this is happening by bringing together artists and scientists – as Ashton put it, an enlightenment project.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Seeing the wood and the trees

I’m currently reading Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings, which explores our perceptions of trees, beech in particular. Mabey is fascinated by trees yet also critical of our tendency to sentimentalise them, especially if this involves treating them as vulnerable creatures in need of our protection rather than independent living beings. It’s a tricky balance that makes me think of two recent news stories.

One was in The Guardian last week. David Hockney has been painting a beech-wood through the seasons but having completed summer and winter when he returned to paint spring he found the wood had been felled. I hope I’m allowed to reproduce these lovely paintings and the less attractive photograph:

[All images by David Hockney]

There’s an interesting response to the story here that points out that we in Britain should take part in sustainable timber production rather than importing all our wood. The land will be replanted by 2014.

A good news story was published on the Greenpeace blog this week: after a long and difficult campaign a large area of temperate rainforest in British Columbia has been protected against any logging activity. It’s great to see how effective campaigning can work. Last summer I read a book about this area’s forests by John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce. Vaillant tells the story of Grant Hadwin, a logger turned environmentalist who in an act of protest against the destructive timber industry destroyed an ancient tree held sacred by the local Haida people. Hadwin felled the tree as a signal against tokenistic preservation of particular trees and reserves that he felt actually enabled large-scale industrial clear cuts to continue unchecked. I wonder what he would think of the protection granted to the Great Bear Forest.

 These five views on trees and forestry may appear to look from our current situation in different directions but I think they have a lot in common. These writers, artists, foresters and campaigners are all trying to understand our relations with trees in focussed, attentive ways. Since all of them want us to see trees it would be a real loss if Hockney's spring and autumn paintings cannot be made so I hope he will find a way to paint them.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Beneath the concrete the forest grows

This post begins with a statement about why we were campaigning in London during this G20 meeting. It’s already well known but it was the point of the protest and why we were there, so here it is (yet) again: climate change if left unchecked will during this century lead to severe water and food shortages resulting in widespread starvation, the extinction of 90% of the world’s species, the destruction of the world’s coastal cities by flood (including the land on which we were protesting), increased severe weather events and serious escalation in conflicts between nations as they fight over vanishing resources or become overwhelmed by refugees (sources here, here and here). This can still be prevented from happening, but only if we change our way of living within the next five years, which means now.

I start with this statement for lots of reasons, first of which is that I had to remind myself of it to find the courage even to go to the climate camp yesterday after the police had so hyped the threat of violence. I’d been to climate camp before but this felt different, being in the centre of London and accompanied by the anti-capitalist demonstrations nearby. Also, coverage of the demonstrations has focussed upon confrontation and police action so protestors’ messages have not clearly emerged.

The day itself started well. Taking the site happened smoothly and without any police interference. The atmosphere was very positive all along Bishopsgate – lots of discussion taking place between people, several groups playing music as well as space for workshops, a cake stall, compost loos and meditation. I once worked on this road so it felt especially good to set up tent under the huge city structures and enjoy the sun along with the slogans hung from the walls or chalked up on the street. Here are a few photos (not by me as I didn’t take a camera; images are from indymedia and the Climate Camp galleries):


I’m actually in the last one – look for a white sleeve holding onto a tent (happily they caught my most flattering angle).

Some media commentators have argued that the G20 summit was not the appropriate forum for discussion of climate change, but the policy makers urgently need to realise that we can’t fix the economy without addressing greenhouse gas emissions since it is our industries that generate the problem. It’s often repeated and always true: an economy built on infinite growth on a planet with finite resources will eventually collapse.

We were at the camp from the start until early evening when we had to leave for boring reasons. While we were there the police were very visible (along with riot vans parked alongside with their engines running) but not confrontational, and nor was anyone at the camp at all confrontational. There was also no vandalism. However, in the evening more riot police arrived (presumably freed up after the G20 Meltdown protest) and sealed the camp. I wasn’t there by this point but in this video you can see riot police surging into the southern end of the camp (where we had set up tent). (The people are chanting 'This is not a riot'. At this time people were not allowed to leave the camp from either end. Update: The Guardian has now covered the tactics.)

By midnight the camp had been aggressively cleared (using a combination of intimidation, trapping people in a shrinking space, batons and dogs). It’s important to stress that the campers were peaceful and focussed upon drawing attention to the climate emergency. The G20 Meltdown event has dominated coverage of the day’s protests, which is a shame since the Climate Camp was a very positive action and concentrated on what draws us together (basically, life on earth). There were hippies, children, people playing violins, people dressed as pandas, poets, scientists and schoolgirls (see photos), and everyone wanted to think about this:

It’s disturbing that our cities can’t make space for such an event.

[Update: Duncan Campbell has written a good article here about the police assault on the passer by who died at the G20 Meltdown. The Guardian's video footage shows a clear unprovoked attack by riot police on the man. I'm linking it because I had been unaware of how this event was covered in most of the media - The Sun thinks we were 'foaming at the mouth' and 'lurching' about in 'packs' apparently. Several times during the protests I thought how the many mobiles filming events probably helped keep police violence in check, another reason to keep an eye on the new Terror Laws that have already restricted our rights to film in public places and photograph police.]