Thursday, 27 August 2009

Evening at the edges

Popular history likes to state that medieval Europeans were afraid of monsters at the edge of the world, such as races of men with their faces in their chests and others who had dog-heads or who lived balanced on one gigantic foot (a foot that they could hold above themselves as a shield against the sun on hot, eastern days):

 (This is the thirteenth-century Psalter Map; the monstrous races can be seen on the lower right side, the coast of Africa)

The world had an edge wrapping around from Ireland to China and a centre, the walled city of Jerusalem. At the end of time Jerusalem would be renewed as the City of God, but was still imagined stiffly walled (shown here in the Gulbenkian Apocalypse).

The axiom that medieval culture walled out the forest, desert, the ocean and the wild ignores many more complex ways in which they thought about edges and centres, what did or did not belong to God. Where’s the centre in this name of Christ from the Book of Kells? Are the cats, mice and the otter eating a fish marginal to God?

Medieval experiences, ideas and art were actually far more ambivalent about whether what is feared can or should be fenced out than I’ve implied, but I was thinking about the dichotomy partially because of reading this comment by Ann Haskell: ‘In comparison with medieval people, who walled themselves in, leaving their fears and what they were afraid of outside, we in the twentieth-century, have reversed this situation: we have fenced in what was out there and put it in zoos, parks, prisons, hospitals, and nature preserves, the result being that we are now outside, living side-by-side with our fears of their escape.’

Something of this urge to contain what feels dangerous could be heard in the outrage at a dying man’s release from prison last week. Reading a poem about the New Jerusalem I recalled being there a few years ago and  seeing a new Wall trapping a people inside, but also being there another time on the day of a bus bomb. We’ve performed a slow act of reversal on medieval geography so that cities feel dangerous and forests endangered. Perhaps it would help to live in a home that drifted unpredictably between inside and outside, like Sylvie in Housekeeping:

When we did come home Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. Evening was her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic. Lucille and I stepped through the door from sheer night into sheer night.

Monday, 24 August 2009

A moment for microbes

All my latest posts have been lengthy, so today I’m giving a moment to microbes:

In a gram of soil there may be more than 10,000 species of bacteria.

There can be about a million microbes per cubic centimetre of sea water.

I dimly remember being told these things repeatedly before reading them again here, but something so boggling is easily forgotten: life jostling in all corners.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Water shadows

I wonder if rivers are so much in our consciousness right now because we feel in need of forgiveness or forgetfulness. There are Alice Oswald’s celebrated poems, this dreary television series, this pensive review by Ian Sinclair of Peter Ackroyd’s Thames book, and of course our recent buried river walk. For months I’ve meant to blog about Samuel Turvey’s book, How we failed to save the Yantze River Dolphin. Perhaps the story’s tragedy made me resist repeating it here. The dolphin, or Baiji, was a pale, long-beaked mammal celebrated in Chinese legends and driven to exintction over the past one hundred years. Turvey took part in the comprehensive river survey of 2006 that failed to find a single Baiji: this book’s climax is in unbroken absence.

Turvey explains that over-fishing decimated the dolphin population, especially in recent years rolling hook lines set for fish but tearing the dolphins by ‘accident’ and, even more disturbing, electro-charge fishing. This tactic uses bolts of electricity sent into the water, killing everything within a 20 metre range of the charge and dragged through the water on boats by ‘fishermen’ who simply scoop the dead creatures who float to the surface. On top of this the Yangtze is a furious motorway for ships, who fill the water with their noise. In the 1980s novelist and environmentalist Douglas Adams described listening to the water through a microphone: ‘what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise, in which nothing could be distinguished at all.’ Since then boats have got bigger, louder and more numerous. The river dolphins navigate by echolocation. Many of the last Baiji, blinded by our noise, died on ship propellers they couldn’t locate.

The book is most powerful in its frustration with the different groups who delayed conservation attempts and prevaricated fatally. The heaviest criticism attacks international scientists and environmental organisations who Turvey claims gave up on the dolphins too soon and never acted resolutely, despite apparent willingness to use the dolphin now as the new, charismatic face of extinction.

It’s an angry, expert, open-eyed book about one of the most terrible events taking place in the world today, the anthropogenic extinction. Looking at the world’s great rivers today – the Yangtze, the Nile, the Jordan, the Ganges, the Amazon – do any still offer forgiveness? 

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Living rivers

Today we heard that Atlantic Salmon have returned to the Seine for the first time since the First World War thanks to major efforts to clean up the river’s water. The Times compares France’s success with the failure to reintroduce Salmon to the Thames. Apparently 20,000 larvae are introduced to our river each year, but only a handful return each summer:

Unusual rain patterns are thought to be to blame. Britain’s sewers are unable to cope with intense downpours, causing them to overflow into the river. The worst culprit — London — is also closest to the river’s entrance, making the prospect for salmon even less enticing.

“The difference between the Seine and the Thames is that all the industry on the Seine is far inland, near Paris,” said Darryl Clifton-Dey, of the Environment Agency salmon restocking programme.

The Salmon are an indicator species because of their sensitivity to the water quality. In Brian Clarke’s ecological novel, The Stream (2000), a salmon’s return to its spawning ground registers the devastation industry, drought and agricultural chemicals have wrought on the river:

The great salmon had entered the Clearwater around the time the young man was arranging delivery of the new, improved fertiliser; yet for the length of his journey and for all that he had been in the Clearwater so long and had lain so long in the pool opposite the stream entrance, the taste of the water coming out of the stream held him back.

It was not until the trees on the skyline were wrestling with the wind and the leaves were being stripped away like migrating birds that the urgency of the salmon’s need overcame the reluctance that restrained him and he moved…

The pictures he had been given to help bring him there, the images of bouncing light and clean gravels and drifting nymphs and the glimpsed outlines of mayflies flickering overhead, might have faded from the salmon’s head utterly. The ache in his gut was growing and the stink of the chokeweed was putting a catch in his gills because the chokeweed was dying as it had always died when the cool weather came.

During the week when the starlings began to flock and swirl as though caught in wild currents and the Minister’s office asked if the date of the official opening could be moved from the Tuesday to the Thursday, the bed of the stream suddenly reached up and touched the salmon on his belly and seemed to waken him as though from a dream. It was as if a high fright passed through him. He suddenly turned and dashed downstream, swimming faster and faster, sending waves slopping up the banks and making the rushes shush and sway.

In this novel everything exists in relation to something else – salmon to farmer, nymph to gravel, chokeweed to starling. Clarke describes places and times for one being through reference to another, a technique that makes the Salmon’s disorientation more shocking.

All the European rivers that flow into the Atlantic once surged with Salmon. It’s heartening to imagine a reverse of the story told above as the fish surge back into the Seine.