Saturday, 8 May 2010

South and north

We just got back from a week visiting Provence and the French Mediterranean coast, landscapes very warm and seductive:

This is the view from our hotel room, but I couldn't capture the fast swifts wheeling and screeching in that sky.

The Gorge of Verdon winds deep through the hills, the river so far below us it's hard to imagine how it ever ground away so much earth:
Green spring trees beside the bright blue water:

The French really do respect food; a Provence farm shop displayed its vegetables like artworks, colour-coordinated:

Flowered courgettes feel delicate and fleshy at once:

Back in Paris and the Jardin du Luxembourg is also in bloom, including these strange trees (I can't identify) with lilac-coloured foxglove-like flowers and some of last year's nuts still visible:

Politics of hope

The fabulous Caroline Lucas thanked the voters of Brighton Pavilion for choosing 'the politics of hope' on Thursday when she became Britain's first Green MP. She will enter Parliament as the sole female leader of a British political party. Congratulations to her and to all the people who campaigned for her. Here's a video of her acceptance speech, in which we get to see her tired, emotional and very happy face at the announcement:

During the campaign, from a quite distance, I felt sceptical that the Greens would make it into Westminster. I lived near Brighton in 2005 and campaigned door to door for Keith Taylor. The feeling that year was very optimistic, and Green supporters seemed to be everywhere. On the day the Greens got over 20% of the vote, which was great, but they still came third behind the Labour and the Tories, despite the fact that on the doorstep I never heard anyone support the Conservatives. Well, I learned a little scepticism. It's cheering to see something good come out of this election, despite the Tory majority. Caroline Lucas is a great spokeswoman for ecology and environment, and I'm looking forward to watching her take on Westminster.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Waking up again

This blog has been sleepy since Copenhagen, so I appreciated this video-call to recover from December's disaster. It's also a nice summary of politician-speak on climate change, a kind of antidote to the dreary General Election campaigning.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Give the orangutan a break

Greenpeace are putting pressure on Nestle to stop using palm oil grown on land cleared of rainforest, especially in Indonesia where forest clearances are threatening the orangutan with extinction. Nestle has succeeded in banning Greenpeace's campaign video from Youtube, so the charity is asking us to spread it across the internet despite Nestle. So here it is, but first a warning - it's quite grisly and not to be watched if you're eating:

Nestle is the world's largest food and drink company so their actions have real impact. They use 320,000 tons of palm oil a year, and doubled their use of the product in the past three years. Much of it comes from plantations grown on cleared rainforests, accelerating climate change and driving extinctions. You can find a simple email to sign and send to Nestle here. In this case, I think sending an email is probably worth doing as the campaign is causing yet more bad publicity for Nestle, who could well follow the example set by Unilever and Kraft and cancel contracts with companies involved in forest clearances.

Palm oil production is driving the extinction of orangutans, one of the human species closest living relatives. Over 80% of their habitat has already been destroyed and it is estimated that the ape could go extinct in just ten years. They are particularly at risk because of their low reproductive rate; a female matures at ten to fifteen years old and can then give birth only every six to eight years. EDGE explains their vulnerability: 'Many of the remaining populations, particularly in Sumatra number fewer than 250 individuals. These small, isolated populations do not have the capacity to recover from population declines. A slight rise in female mortality rate of just 1-2% can drive a local population to extinction.'

Monday, 8 March 2010

Fontainebleau in March

We spent a long Sunday exploring the forest of Fontainebleau. Moving between areas of bright green Scots Pines and stretches of still bare Beeches and Oaks felt a little like passing backwards and forwards between spring and winter.
Vegetation struggled to break through the thick layers of fallen leaves and needles, but the leaves in the sunlight had their own colour and warmth.
The forest's character felt quite changeable, full of hidden pleasures, like these Silver Birches complementing the green Pines.
Curiously shaped rocks attract boulderers, and we saw some working across the sandstone, or hunting between the trees for challenges, with their mattresses strapped to their backs so that they could cushion the ground beneath their climbs.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A thin city

At noon on the first Wednesday of every month air raid sirens boom across Paris. The first time I heard this back in November the sound took me by surprise. I looked into the street to see if anything was happening, but all the Montparnassians below me walked calmly on, so I shrugged it off too. Hearing the alarm today, it already sounded familiar. The siren tells you exactly where and when you are: Paris, first Wednesday, 12 noon. But that precise present is shadowed by the city’s past, and fears for the future. The alarms are a test, to ensure that the sirens still work and can be used to warn citizens of danger in the case of future catastrophes. They also recall the dangers Paris has already survived, violence that has taken place here.

Victims of the Shoah, named at the Paris Museum of the Shoah (source)

You can barely walk down a street in this area without encountering a memorial, especially to people killed during the German occupation of 1940-44. On my way to our post office yesterday, for example, I passed a primary school with a plaque above the main door dedicated to the Jewish children taken from that school to the camps. The long unknown history of the house we live in troubles me in a way that of the Victorian house I grew up in never did. I remember that this city has endured revolutions and invasions, that it tests its sirens because of real experience.

Last year I blogged about Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the end of the world, a sculpture that tries to ‘commemorate’ a future event. I asked whether cities should build monuments not just to events in their past, but to think about lives to come. In a very dark way, the Paris sirens do this.

France is currently recovering from a natural disaster – the weekend’s storm killed over 50 people in France and swollen tides flooded towns along the Atlantic coast.

La-Faute-sur-Mer on Monday

In the capital we woke to strong winds but no damage. Today the sun is shining brightly, it’s March, spring does finally feel close, and the siren has come and gone. The alarm might be a signal of time’s continuity, its regularity, or perhaps it signals time’s rips, traumas and tears.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

A place of safety

Reading Mark Lynas’s terrifying and vivid depiction of the future on a hotter planet, Six Degrees, one of the most moving moments for me was the dedication to his wife and son ‘in the hope that most of the predictions here need not come true’. The book describes the expected food crises, extinctions and water shortages, and it culminates in an inferno of methane eruptions and stagnant, poisonous oceans. To dedicate such a narrative to your child makes sense – Lynas works to prevent such a future – but it must also have been a very painful thing to do.

I’ve been considering what children hear and think about climate change while reading Kate Thompson’s The White Horse Trick, a young adult novel set at the end of this century in Ireland crippled and dying in the ravaged climate. Dystopia has a strong presence in children’s fiction, and young readers deal with those stories in a similar way to adults: they help us to work through the terror of imagining all the logical consequences of the way we live, from the relative security of a safer present. I was impressed by Thompson’s handling of the issue. She respects her readers’ intelligence and resilience enough to confront us with the full horror of what climate change might mean. Warlords exploit and brutalise the valleys and coasts around the Burren, and the future appears so hopeless that there’s no arguing when one character declares, ‘It’s all over for the human race.’ Yet Thompson also provides a place of safety for the reader. Ireland is paralleled by Tir na n’Óg, a timeless kingdom inhabited by fairies. Just as various bedraggled human refugees cross over to this land, Tir na n’Óg also balances the reader’s experience of ecological and social collapse. The White Horse Trick is the third in a trilogy and Tir na n’Óg is well known from Irish folklore, so Thompson did not invent the land for this purpose, but she uses it deftly.

I did wonder if a refuge like this could be cheating, letting us off the hook. In particular, it allows Thompson to juxtapose human time with geological time, the millennia over which the earth’s ecosystems might recover from what we’ve done to them. This recalls arguments made by people who have run out of ways to deny climate change’s reality, so declare that the earth will survive even if humans don’t, as though the suffering in between doesn’t matter. But in Thompson’s book the suffering does matter, so the effect of her reassurance is different. I found that having access to a place of safety while reading about climate change allowed me to experience a greater range of emotions than I usually have when reading about this subject. It was a surprise. Perhaps I’d come to feel that anger, sorrow and despair are the only legitimate emotions for the subject to provoke, but in a children’s book that wouldn’t feel right. As an adult, it was oddly refreshing to face the collapse of human society from this novel’s fantastical perspective.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

How Wang-Fo was saved

An beautiful tale about art and reality, based on a story by Marguerite Yourcenar:

Sunday, 14 February 2010

May they sing when they wake

I’ve been neglecting the blog recently while finishing work on a novel, which has left me verbally exhausted. It’s nearly complete, and in the meantime here are some photos I took alongside the Seine today.

St Valentine’s day is traditionally the day the birds choose their mates.

In Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules the birds sing in praise of nature today (the song was written in France, according to Chaucer):

‘Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,

That hast this wintres weders over-shake,

And driven awey the longe nightes blake!

‘Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte;

Thus singen smale foules for thy sake -

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,

That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

‘Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,

Sith ech of hem recovered hath his make;

Ful blisful may they singen whan they wake;

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,

That hast this wintres weders over-shake,

And driven away the longe nightes blake.’*

The summer sun has not quite shaken off winter weather here, but it was melting these icicles beneath the bridges:

The birches along the promenade bear the marks of many passing lovers:

Their bark has become hieroglyphic with names and dates:

* A sketchy translation:

Now welcome summer, with your soft sun

That has overcome this winter weather,

And driven away the long black nights!

Saint Valentine, who is upheld so high,

So sing the small birds for your sake –

Now welcome summer, with your soft sun

That has overcome this winter weather.

Well have they cause to cheer often,

Since each of them has recovered his mate;

Fully happy may they sing when they wake;

Now welcome summer with your soft sun

That has overcome this winter weather,

And driven away the long black nights.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Writing like a dying anthill

The biologist E. O. Wilson published a fascinating story in The New Yorker this week depicting the life of an ant colony, using a literary narrative style generally reserved for human subjects. Wilson is an accomplished writer and scientist, as I’ve said before in posting about his account of ‘biophilia’, the idea that humans are instinctively attracted to life in all forms. His story, ‘Trailhead’, conjures the routines and dramas of life in the ants’ nest. It provides scientific insights without losing narrative tension, recalling Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind and Brian Clarke’s The Stream.

One of the difficulties in Wilson’s project is the question of how to imagine or talk about ants’ motivations and desires in human language. Wilson is careful to write in terms of instinctive reactions and pheromone signals. It may not be possible or desirable to write about other species without any anthropomorphism, but in ‘Trailhead’ Wilson at least tries to be as accurate as possible in his description of the ants’ sensory language. Usually he represents ants’ behaviour as simple fact, but he does not try disguise the way in which human perspective inevitably colours the tale, as in this description of ant-altruism:

‘Dying workers often left the nest completely, thereby avoiding the spread of infectious diseases. Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.’


The story centres upon the decline of the colony following the queen’s death, which is reported in the first sentence. The collapse gathers pace towards the end, culminating in a shocking scene of warfare, panic and horror.

‘Within a week, the colony began to starve. The nurse ants killed and cannibalized the last of the larvae and pupae, their own baby nest mates, and regurgitated their liquid and tissue to other adults…

In the confusion that reigned through the night, the Trailhead Colony felt—it knew—that it was in extreme difficulty. It had no conception of defeat, but the nest interior was filled with the odor of alarm and recruitment pheromones released by both sides during the attempted Streamsider break-in. The fighters were contaminated by the alien odor of the invaders. They could see the battle flags of the enemy, so to speak; they could hear the continuous shriek of alarms.’

From the beginning of the story we understand the colony is doomed, but the ants continue to pursue survival, even coronating queens whose eggs are unfertilised. Why did Wilson choose to publish a story about a tenacious, ingenious struggle to survive that never has any possibility of success? We expect to read about another species’ life, but he also shows us death.

The process of life and death in the story is entirely natural, but Wilson's choice of focus may be no surprise given his powerful account of the current mass extinction caused by human activity in The Future of Life. Interestingly, Wilson's language becomes most anthropocentric in discussing the superorganism’s collapse:

‘Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants. The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city. Their unity of purpose was gone, their social machinery halted. No foraging, no cleaning and feeding of larvae, no queen for them to rally around. The order of the colony was dissolving. Out there, indomitable and waiting, were the hated, filthy, unformicid Streamsiders. Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice—they could fight or run from the horror.’

At the risk of reckless misreading, his thought-provoking story might not look out of place over on the Dark Mountain website.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Literary anger

Over at Arts and Ecology, William Shaw is warming up for the arrival of Ian McEwan’s coming novel, Solar, by asking can literary fiction ever do climate change? I share the doubts about Solar but do think that there are good ‘literary’ novelists writing about climate change directly, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Hall for a start. All three women have written novels set in futures decimated by climate change. Whether their novels are literary fiction or science fiction is less important to me than the vivid, engaged storytelling.

Sarah Hall in particular writes about human relationships with nature with feeling, intelligence and fury, a great combination. In The Carhullan Army she imagines Britain wrecked by oil shortages and floods in the near future. Her narrator escapes bleak authoritarianism of town life for female commune on the Cumbrian moors, yet there’s no escape from violence.


Hall has said that the Cumbrian floods of 2005 inspired The Carhullan Army. Her first novel, Haweswater, anticipated those floods and is for me in many ways the more interesting novel. It explores the same Cumbrian landscape, showing the stark beauty of villagers’ lives in the valley of Mardale. People, time and place are torn apart by the arrival of a representative for Manchester Waterworks who announces plans to flood the land to create a reservoir. The casual destruction of the whole valley is based on reality, vividly dramatised in the novel. The personal and the ecological intertwine through the tragedy Hall depicts. As a historical novel, Haweswater is not about climate change, but it is an impressive portrayal of human impact on landscape, and shows how fruitful this subject is for ‘literary’ writers. Most of importantly, the novel has none of McEwan's diffidence about ideas: it’s bold, roaring.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

2010 is Year of Biodiversity

The United Nations has declared 2010 to be 'Year of Biodiversity', in an effort to spread this message:

'Humans are part of nature’s rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.

Biodiversity, the variety of life on Earth, is essential to sustaining the living networks and systems that provide us all with health, wealth, food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on.

Human activity is causing the diversity of life on Earth to be lost at a greatly accelerated rate. These losses are irreversible, impoverish us all and damage the life support systems we rely on everyday. But we can prevent them.

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. Let’s reflect on our achievements to safeguard biodiversity and focus on the urgency of our challenge for the future. Now is the time to act.'

What having a 'Year of' achieves, I'm not sure, but the message is important.

A glass frog, whose heart can be seen through the skin (Photo: Paul S. Hamilton)

Beautiful pictures from Ecuador in the Guardian this week revealed some of the astonishing species we have yet to meet. They are, however, threatened by logging and climate change (see also, here).

A scaly-eyed gecko (Photo: Paul S. Hamilton)

I thought today I'd recall some already classic WWF posters dramatising the ways in which we are thrusting other species from their homes and threatening our own. They're images of things out of place, manipulated in a high contrast style that has an apocalyptic register. Some of the texts on the images struggle to match the proportion of the scene's drama (below, 'Do your bit', or elsewhere, buy a hybrid). The question 'Where is your home?' works best for me:

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Vampires: an anti-nature fantasy?

This weekend, still malingering indoors because of the Europe-wide freeze, I finally watched creepy and excellent Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In. In an effort to exorcise that film’s ugly under-the-skin nastiness I’m taking a good look at vampires today, from an ecological perspective, naturally. Vampires are absurdly popular just now, mostly because of the extraordinary success of the multi-million best-selling Twilight franchise. According to some complex alogarithms ‘vampire’ was the 5th most popular word of 2009. And ‘climate change’ is the top phrase of the decade. Which surely raises the question, is there a link?

In their first wave of Victorian popularity vampires represented some aspects of nature that humans feared. Vampires were animalistic dwellers in darkness. They could transform into bats and dogs. Having given up their souls they were free to take survival of the fittest to new levels of selfish brutality, which Victorians worried might be a consequence of the collapse of religion (possibly). But most of the evidence suggests that vampires are anti-nature:

  • They are undead, not living or dead; this is quite unnatural.
  • They don’t breathe (no signs of various other normal bodily functions either, except for eating and sex).
  • They’re cold, hard and generally unmammalian despite their mammal origins.
  • Their natural enemies are werewolves (see Underworld and New Moon), who embody the wild, animalistic side of human nature.

Stephanie Myers’ bestseller list domination made me curious enough to find my inner teenage girl (admittedly, this is not difficult) and read Twilight, so I also know that modern vampires like fast cars, are very consumerist and have no conscience about taking long haul flights.

Twilight: Don't be fooled: this vampire is not a tree-hugger.

Why are vampires so popular now? Mostly, it’s about sex. But might their status as the anti-nature monster also have something to do with it? In the nineteenth century vampire stories spoke to cultural fears about female sexuality but also about colonialism. The vampire is a classic parasite so it was logical for Dracula to set up camp in London, heart of the British Empire, in his efforts to expand his blood-draining super-race. Today’s vampire stories might just be speaking to our fears that we are parasitically draining the world of its natural resources, transforming ourselves into an unnatural simulacrum of humanity in the process.

Let the Right One In: Also not about tree huggers

Even though vampires are decidedly unnatural beings, the current wave of novels, films and TV series like True Blood find them irresistibly attractive. Twilight and co are romances and they provoke bewildering passion in some readers. Vampires are multi-layered, and most of their appeal is in their strong appetites and freedom from social rules, but I wonder if we also see ourselves in their inversion of natural processes. Part of us does want to be better than nature, and in loving vampires we try to escape natural limitations. Let the Right One In’s deep creepiness seemed to me to come from the way it depicts human attraction to vampires. Vampires see themselves as top of the food chain, but being top of the food chain makes them parasites and a touch of sunlight makes them nothing at all (at least until Meyers started spreading all this sparkling in the sunlight nonsense).

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Les Nymphéas

About a week before Solstice, with December at its greyest, I went to visit Monet’s water lily paintings (Les Nymphéas) at The Orangerie. The paintings curve around the walls of two large oval rooms and drench the space with colour. The paintings show the water at different times of day and year. In the second room each view is framed by willows and the water’s blue runs through the trees’ trunks.

(Monet, Le Matin aux saules)

It’s difficult to convey on a screen the scale of the paintings, which are 2 metres high and up to 17 metres broad. Their great width and encircling shape immerses the viewer in the substance of the water. You cannot take it all in at once, nor distinguish surface, depths and reflected sky through his layered colours.

(Monet, Reflets d’arbres)

I was struck on this visit with the thought that Monet was painting his own garden pond to produce these images, and yet he represented the place very large. There’s a slight sense of disproportion looking at size of the leaves and walking around the space the paintings are designed to take. Nature feels bigger than usual. Monet spent the last thirty years of his life painting these scenes, completing the Orangerie Les Nymphéas in his eighties. He suffered at this time from cataracts and distorted vision, but the paintings suggest his ability to immerse himself in the substance of nature within one particular place. Perhaps he came to see that the water, the willows and lily leaves were boundless.

(Monet, Soleil couchant)