Sunday, 28 June 2009

Lives in Dartmoor

I've been away this week, mostly camping in Dartmoor, so this post is a photo-walk across the moors and bogs, starting with some of the plants from the marshy ground (Cottongrass, Bog Pimpernel and Sundews):

Eran spotted some newts - here's one:
Impressively fibrous fructicose lichens grew from the oaks, something city-dwellers rarely get to see since these organisms are so sensitive to air pollution (I can only identify the one photographed as a kind of Usnea):

This particular oakwood grew on the bank of the Okement River:

Rocky boulders cover the ground, all wrapped in moss, and the trees grow quite low and slender. I think this may be because an oakwood loves light - they seem to reach some kind of agreement. The plants growing there are so different to under oaks around us in Oxfordshire; they look rather Alpine, such as this Stonecrop:

We walked to the head of the East Dart, inspired by Alice Oswald. After slinking past the Army (who were picking up shells from their artillery practice) and Eran's heroic tent-and-dinner-carrying labours the water was deliciously cooling. Right at the head it feels like a secret, the water's so silent it makes you back away, but further down it picks up pace and cuts out a stream, still stained with earth:
Oswald says this:

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones 
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

Here's where we camped that night:
At night when the meadow pippets and skylarks rested it became very silent and blue.

Friday, 19 June 2009


There’s an interesting article by Paul Schrader on The Guardian this morning arguing that we all suffering from ‘narrative exhaustion’: ‘Today's viewers live in a biosphere of narrative. Twenty-four-seven, multimedia, all the time. When a storyteller competes for a viewer's attention, he not only competes with simultaneously occurring narratives, he competes with the variations of his own narrative. That's real competition. The bar of originality has been raised.’

Schrader thinks that because we’re already familiar with nearly all the plots (like serial killers, road movies, oddballs etc) we’re turning increasingly to counter-narrative, like 'reality' TV and video-gaming.

A while ago I watched this clip about new video game system that creates characters who really interact with the player:

Part of me is excited by the possibilities for participatory narrative in this, but really, it’s a pretty terrifying retreat from reality, and a bad time to be doing so.

Some more counter-narratives may be coming up in the next few days when I get back from various Respond activities in London.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The nearest kin of the moon

This post is a tribute to the grey cat who comes to visit us sometimes. She lives next door but apparently likes company so when I’m working at home during the day she comes and sleeps on our bed next to my desk. She has a relaxed approach to life illustrated by this picture:

This is what she thinks of Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems:

We don’t feed her as she’s well cared for at home and she’s a gentle little soul so it’s quite touching that she likes to visit. Our flat is on the first floor but she gets in through the sloping roof below our window, being attuned to the wisdom of Kipling’s long-ago cat: ‘I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.’ Here’s what the ever-wonderful Martin Buber has to say about cats:

‘Sometimes I look into a cat’s eyes… The beginning of this cat’s glance, lighting up under the touch of my glance, indisputably questioned me: “Is it possible that you think of me? Do you really not just want me to have fun? Do I concern you? Do I exist in your sight? Do I really exist? What is it that comes from you? What is it that surrounds me? What is it that comes from me? What is it?” (“I” here is a transcription for a word, that we do not have, denoting self without the ego; and by “it” is to be imagined the streaming human glance in the total reality of its power to enter into relation.) The animal’s glance, speech of disquietude, rose in its greatness – and set at once. My own glance was certainly more lasting; but it was no longer the streaming human glance. The rotation of the world which introduced the relational event had been followed almost immediately by the other which ended it. The world of It surrounded the animal and myself, for the space of a glance the world of Thou had shone out from the depths, to be at once extinguished and put back into the world of It.

‘I relate this tiny episode, which I have experienced several times, for the sake of the speech of this almost unnoticeable sunrise and sunset of the spirit. In no other speech have I known so profoundly the fleeting nature of actuality in all its relations with being, the exalted melancholy of our fate, the change, heavy with destiny, of every isolated Thou into an It.’

Here's the cat with me - she's fed up of Buber:

Sunday, 14 June 2009


After frequently speculating about the supposed difficulty of writing about climate change in fiction, I recently read John Burnside’s novel Glister (published last year), which although not exactly about climate is a brilliant display of how an exciting story can encompass environmental degradation while sacrificing nothing in terms of plot or style. I previously knew of Burnside as a poet, especially good at ripping illusions of security or peacefulness away from towns and suburbs and responding to the mesmeric power of encounters with the wild. He wrote a great article on this for Poetry Review, citing Eugeiono Montale’s view that art’s traditions are continued by ‘those who have gone to the woods and stayed long enough to catch sight of the hide-behind, that old god who stands behind us always, in the green of nothingness, gifting us with music and the terrore d’ubriaco’ (I think that translates: ‘the drunkard’s terror’).

These ideas are made story in Glister, set in a Scottish peninsula town contaminated by a chemical factory that has now closed, leaving behind unemployment, sickness and a sense of entrapment that the town’s inhabitants share but that isolates them each from the other.  Every year or so an adolescent boy disappears in the poisoned woods that surround the town and the truth surrounding these disappearances, that the boys are being killed in some bizarre ritual, is covered up by corrupt authorities. It wasn’t easy reading for me since brutal events are graphically described and the characters are invariably suffering. I often walk out of films during torture scenes so that crime fiction element was difficult, but I persisted with Glister because Burnside writes well, especially on the beauty of a deserted factory or the town-dweller’s unformed longing to run or go away, without knowing where to go to. He builds an interesting tension between unblinking realism and another vision, of life imbued with religious significance and strangeness. 

I started thinking, if it is eco-fiction he’s subtle about it, but then he turned around at the end and delivered a ferocious attack that reminded me in its own way of the endings of American Pastoral and Kalooki Nights. Burnside has a new poetry collection coming soon called The Hunt in the Forest that sounds like it will explore a similar set of questions, ‘taking us on a journey out of the light and into the darkness, where we may just as easily lose ourselves as find what we are looking for.’ The title is drawn from this painting by Paolo Uccello, which represents a whole community adventuring towards the vanishing point, not a select and isolated poet, something that I think comes through in the novel too:

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Sumatra's forests

We often hear that deforestation is the low-hanging fruit in tackling climate change and species extinction. Nicholas Stern is especially keen on global agreements to prevent further devastation of rainforests, which are crucial to a healthy carbon cycle and climate. So it’s worrying to learn of plans to destroy a large area of forest in Sumatra, Bukit Tigapuluh, home to over 100 Sumatran Orangutans, and 100 of the 400 surviving Sumatran Tigers, 65 Critically Endangered Sumatran Elephants and many other threatened species (information from EDGE). The forest is to be felled for pulp and paper production. Last night we watched a documentary on iPlayer that talked about the fate of the Easter Islanders, a civilisation that died following the destruction of their forests, a shocking reminder that nature won’t keep giving forever. Nature documentaries often talk about extinction or deforestation in terms of loss and disappearance. It’s crucial to remember that these places aren’t ‘disappearing’ – we’re destroying them. Orwell would understand what’s happening to our language there.

Okay, so if you’d like to voice a protest against this destruction it’s pretty easy: there’s a petition to sign here, and lots of information here.

Signing petitions feels a little futile at times, so it’s worth thinking about what that paper and pulp will be used for. A staggering amount makes toilet paper. Isn’t that a crime? Take a look at these details (e.g. it takes 90 years to grow a box of Kleenex), and switch to recycled.

Imperatives over, here’s a picture of a Black Pine near where I work: 

Monday, 8 June 2009

Electronic pavements

Continuing with the idea of cities and time I thought I’d write about an audio adventure I went on last year around the City of London guided by an eco-opera. And While London Burns tells a story imagining the streets’ past and future from the perspective of the oil-fuelled present. It is described by the makers as ‘a requiem for the warming world’ and can be downloaded here. To take part you listen to it on an MP3 player as you walk the route, receiving instructions about where to walk while listening to the story unfold. I found that the experience dissociated me from the usual thoughts I might have had in such places so that I was plunged into a whole other set of perceptions, which was at times eerie or illuminating. It’s also a little unnerving to be in a public place listening to a voice giving instructions for your next actions while not knowing what they might be (but don’t worry, nothing’s illegal or even embarrassing). I hugely recommend this experience, perhaps less for the story than for the way it gives new eyes. Some changes have been made to the buildings and street access since the piece was recorded in 2006, but I found the way my walk diverged from the speaker’s actually added another layer to the City’s palimpsest. There are artists doing similar things less polemically (such as Janet Cardiff) but this example is the most accessible and relevant to climate change that I’m aware of currently.

Some of the people who made this opera are involved in another performance piece in the City of London taking place on 17-20 June. The Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination have developed CRASH Contingency (an experiment in three acts) as part of a series of arts events called 2 degrees taking place in central London this month. There is a huge amount of environment-related cultural activity around the country this June because of the Respond project, co-ordinated by the RSA. I’ll be going to a few events later this month and blogs will follow, but meanwhile quite a lot of projects are accessible online. Here are two highlights:

Ecopoetics study packs by Mario Petrucci are available here, commissioned by the Poetry Society.

Oxford’s Climate Outreach Information Network is hosting a Climate Radio here, with a long list of interviews and events available to listen to online or as podcasts.

It’s a bit overwhelming, but a great antidote to post-EU elections blues.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The neck of the hourglass

Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art has a fascinating exhibition at the moment ‘looking at how contemporary artists disrupt prevailing forms of registering and representing the world’. Two exhibits at Transmission Interrupted in particular got me thinking about the ways we see our cities, Jem Cohen’s beautiful video of New York (NYC Weights and Measures) and Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the end of the world. Cantor’s piece is a large model city, simply made from plain wood and dominated by a huge crane beneath a set of wind chimes kept in motion by a fan. The text tells us that ‘the work alludes to the anticipatory commemoration of a future event’.


I found the installation evocative if visually unsatisfying, although I do understand that Cantor wished to give a sense of unfinished vulnerability to the piece. But the concept is very significant.

Some time ago, reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities I was moved by the description of Laudomia, a city that like all cities gives space for the living and another space for the dead, the cemetery. Laudomia also includes a third city, one for the unborn. This is ‘rightly… an equally vast residence’:

‘Naturally the space is not in proportion to their number, which is presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, surrounded by an architecture all niches and bays and grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect or crouching on every object or bracket that juts from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence…’

Calvino describes the citizens visiting this space, this city, to think of the future. But he tells us: ‘The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit, like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm.’ There are two possible paths: a future teeming with lives to come, crammed into that confined space, or else a Laudomia that will come to an end.

‘Then the Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned over; each passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.’

Oh, Calvino. His extraordinary imagination and intellectual precision leave me stricken. But at risk of bathos in following his thought, this story made me think how distorted it is that our cities build monument after monument to the dead or to commemorate past events in war and culture, and yet we make no space at all for the future. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if every city had such a space, a place where we could think about lives to come? I like Calvino’s choice of emptiness for such a city to the unborn since how else could it take shape? We tend to see ourselves as the end point of history, and this makes sense in terms of our knowledge, life spans and the necessity of repressing thoughts of death. But to acknowledge that our homes are homes of people to come could be powerful and positive. Today’s cultural short-sightedness sets us stumbling into a bleak future, but human imaginations make our cultures endlessly malleable.