Here I am leaving instructions for participating in this 4WCOP event over the weekend of 5-6 September. I’ve also made a you tube video which contains a more improvised and personal introduction to the activity. You can find that here..
The activity is to guide us to an awareness of the precariousness of the creatures that surround us in an age of global extinction.
My intent is that you have a chance to consider how they use and experience our shared environment, and in doing so you might be able to consider how to imagine their potential presence, and (unfortunately) probable absence, and your feelings about this. In this I am trying to use psychogeography as a way to overcome the numbness that has been recognised as a feature of our emotional response to the rapid changes happening in our world.
Heres a warm up exercise..
from ‘Becoming Gull’
Walk back and forth between your living room and kitchen as a seagull.
Move your head to look around , do not move your eyes. Tilt your head to either sideto look up and check the sky..and look down for food, like chips , on the floor..
(Marcus Coates, A Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning)
So I ask you to go out into your locale, alone or with others, at a time of your choice, and imagine that world through the senses and priorities of any or all of these three creatures whose worlds overlap with ours, and who are facing serious threats to their existence. You can either experiment with expanding your senses in the direction that they have (in the way Marcus Coates suggests) , or you can imagine their relations with the landscape (as Charles Foster does further down).
Culled from popular natural history sources and, of course, Wikipedia, here are some hints at how you might practice experiencing the worldviews of my choices –
House Sparrow passer domesticus
-You are more comfortable if you are overhung or protected.
-You have your eyes on the side of your head, and you use your peripheral vision to look out for cats and sparrowhawk.
-You like hedges and bushes to roost in and nooks and crannies for nesting.
-You have an irrational hatred of yellow flowers which you tear to pieces.. no one knows why.
-you eat seeds mainly on the ground, and you prefer to hop around rather than fly if you can.
Formerly one of the commonest birds in the world, your numbers have dramatically crashed in some places. In the UK numbers have fallen by 69% between 1977 and 2010.
Main threats seem to be changes in agricultural practice, insecticides and pesticide residues, pollution in towns, changes in construction practices, and lack of invertebrate food for young.
The animals and I speak a shared language; the language of the buzzing of our neurones. often they speak in a difficult- though never quite incomprehensible dialect. when it is difficult to make out what is being said, context helps. the context is always the land….What is an animal ?It is a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. Whats a human? its a rolling conversation with the land from which it becomes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals. (Charles Foster, Being A Beast, pp19-20)
Common frog Rana temporaria
-You first exist as a soft-bodied invertebrate with external gills living in water
-then you absorb your tail and grow legs
-then you absorb your gills and grow lungs
-then you absorb your soft skin and grow a thick outer layer.
-then you cover yourself in a layer of spittle
-leaving water you are defenceless and need to movequickly from damp cover to cover
-from hiding you catch prey with a sticky tongue and swallow it in one gulp
-you spend winter in a state of torpor
-When you wake in spring you are drawn back to the water by the smell of algae
You are finding less standing water, and less invertebrates to eat and you are starting to be infected by a global pandemic of ranaviruses, which has already caused the extinction of many other frog species .
Brown long eared bat Plecotus auritus
-your hand has become webbed and the fingers spread into a wing, your arm has shrunk to hold it firm against your shoulder
-your ears are nearly as long as your body
-you flutter slowly around the canopy of trees listening intently for moths under cover of darkness
-when you find prey you scream at it and use the echo to grab at its aural silhouette
-you enter large buildings through cracks and roost their during the day
-you swarm once a year around the mouth of caves and tunnels and find mates
-you sleep the winter out in a tunnel or a cellar
-you are finding fewer places to roost and hibernate , less food and have been having to move into unfamiliar territories.
The second part of the exercise is to contrast how the spaces you ve visited have changed as you imagined your animal(s) , and then how they would change again through their absence.
What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction -that of ecological interactions (Daniel Janzen)
What is actually occurring is more dire than the numbers indicate. There are the functional extinctions, the extinction cascades, the extinction vortexes – these are ways in which as things start to slip down that death road, other things start going too. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blesssing, and whole worlds of knowledge and practice diminish. We are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest. Shimmer, the ancestral power of life, arises in relationship and encounter , so extinction cascades shimmer from the world ( Deborah Bird Rose, Shimmer, p52, in Tsing, Swanson et al) also as lecture here
While these quotes describe what is going on from an ecological or cultural perspective, some kind of felt or imagined response, is, I think the grounding which can place us back in the midst of the changing world around us. I also think that an embodied response, such as happens in psychogeography , is particularly evocative.
I am very interested to hear whether others are similarly affected. Here is a link to do that (or if you dont want to use Facebook, or possibly can’t for what are usually described as ‘technical reasons’ you can comment at the foot of the blog – I hope to be able to respond to some of the comments in the plenary session at the Congress..
As well as the authors who I ve quoted in the text I ve also been inspired indirectly by Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to Be a Bat? and ‘In the Absence of Sparrows’ by Helen Whale and Franklin Ginn, in Mourning Nature – Hope at the Heart of Ecological loss and Grief , Cunsolo, Ashlee and Landman, Karen (eds), (2017), as well as the work of Lost Species Day-around whose annual remembrance day for lost species ( 30 November) I intend to resume my contact with the ghosts of the bramble cay melomys, which inspired this presentation.
This is a piece of constrained writing, which I thought was inspired by OuLiPou , but I now know is actually inspired by my misapprehension of what OuLiPou did, and so of an invented OuLiPou, of daring and stylish literary anarchists swooping through the arrondisements of Paris and making off with a haul of found writings.
I dont think I want to go to Paris, which I m sure will be a large disappointment, but I did go to the part of Edinburgh which is nearly Leith (or viceversa) and imagined the boundary ( as I see it psychogeographically) between the two for a while. This takes me from Edina Street to the bottom of McDonald Road, and onto Rodney Street,into an area which sometimes gets called Inverleith. Inbhir is, from Gaelic, something about mouths , or meeting . Usually of rivers, but since there are no rivers meeting in Inverleith ,maybe we can imagine it is about a boundary of a more psychosocial aspect, the one that locals still sometimes claim exists between Leith, that old mottley port, and the more aspirational Enlightenment of Edinburgh. Something to be at the meeting of.
In tribute to the reclamation of the streets over lockdown I did my piece by voice recorder from my bicycle. The rules I followed were to record street writing (signage, graffiti, advertorials) in order. I was allowed to omit words, change grammar and punctuation and use homonyms. I did add a couple of other ones I saw on my journey back in line with the concept of litterature potential
the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy”.
(I took pictures to illustrate this too – but they are stranded in another pocket of cyberspace, as indeed are these words which I am unable to share directly with a group of psychogeographers who are trying to meet. Its an echoey place the internet , full of highways and upgrades but with very few pedestrian crossings. When I find one I ll drop the pictures off , meantime you can use your imagination, which will be better, and indeed one day may replace the internet)
Smile orny pups
Stay for hours
Only, only , only, only
Victorian school Mixed recycling
Milky, Milky, Milky
One hundred and fifty
The power of kindness
To let, to let
Badge holders only
Stops to city
Rise for heroes
Take control plants crossing
We are registered
You can follow us
We care about appearance
Dry rice our inlet
Only, only, only, only ,only
Past this point
Fissures in the city
I said I would not forget, and I want to write to you disembodied totem spirit of an ex thing that I probably dont believe in, because I want to bear witness, to envision the end of an existence.
It was, of course, absurd. My friend reminded me of this as we waded out to a bench on the edge of a flooded pond carrying a paper replica island towards a herd of confused and curious swans. How could it be otherwise?
Firstly death just is. At an individual level – not in a jolly Halloween cartoon Grim Reaper way, but in a deep epistemological way. We humans can’t comprehend the absence of existence. And we dont like it. It unsettles us.
It is a further step to imagine the death of something that you dont know existed in the first place. That is a loss of opportunity. But also a leap into a gap which the imagination or unconsciousness might fill with projections. My own are of failing to protect something innocent and precious. Was that really you, Bramble Cay Melomys?
I also spend time thinking about rats. Attentive readers will have noticed in the sister post how quickly I conflated the unknown extinct rodent with the rats thatthe BBC is cheerleading to extinction. The analogy becomes more problematic when we consider the survival of the melomys, until climate change finally did for it, occurred mainly because occasional human visitors to Bramble Cay had failed to bring with them the opportunistic and competing rodents which had caused the extinction of other ground-living island dwellers in the area. Real things are always fucking up our best metaphors. But still, as a familiar example of undervalued beings in our midst, rats work pretty well. We are to be observed by several as we launch our craft.
Around the time of the commemoration I saw an artwork by Marcus Coates. Entitled Extinct Animals it is composed of plaster castes of the artists arms, hands or even fingers as he makes shadow figures of various extinct animals. Some of these are frankly very schematic, but that doesnt really affect the impact much. These creatures no longer cast a shadow, so..
I ve been drawn to Marcus’ work for several years and soon after I was able to see him talk about it. He described his fascination in embodying a message of communication of some kind – and I ve noticed that this is often across a barrier of some sort, of time, kind, language or even, and often, species. I’ve watched him being interviewed as a Blue Footed Booby on Galapagos TV, attend a community meeting in a condemned council block wearing a deer skull on his head before going into a shamanistic trance, choreograph a number of volunteers sitting in their cars living rooms and waiting rooms into a replica of the dawn chorus, and take a question from a man dying in a hospice on a journey to and from an ageing woman in a hut in the Peruvian Amazon. Here he is , encouraging a Canadian island community to apologise to the extinct great auks which used to live there.
None of these admirable projects look anything other than absurd. But they do encourage a way of connecting which is uncanny, disorientating and affecting. I think they tug around our felt senses.
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Within the growing field of climate psychology is a recognition that our response to the evidence of climate change is also necessarily un-canny, and will feel at least some part absurd.
We have the notion that Tim Morton draws from object-orientated ontology of the ‘strange stranger’, the thing that we can only encounter in a phenomenological way without prejudice or preconception, and the hyperobjects he develops from that way of thinking ( I d suggest that extinction is another hyperobject that is spreading through us at the moment, like a lump of indissolvable plastic). In the more cautious and classical philosophical position laid out by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope,
We do not have to agree with Plato that there is a transcendent source of goodness – that is a source of goodness that transcends the world – to think that the goodness of the world transcends our finite powers to grasp it. The emphasis here is not on some mysterious source of goodness, but on the limited nature of our finite conceptual resources. This I think most readers will agree, is an appropriate response for finite creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it seems oddly inappropriate – lacking in understanding of oneself as a finite creature- to think that what is good about the world is exhausted by our current understanding of it. Even the most strenously secular readers ought to be willing to accept this form of transcendence (pp.121-2, 2006)
Lear’s ‘hero’ ( I think that is fair) ,the Crow chief Plenty Coups , uses a dream he has interpreted, to suggest that his tribe should give up their traditional virtues, and find an accomodation with the crushing forces of American colonisation, which would ( and indeed did) allow them to retain their identity and integrity. His message, however, is that in a situation when our known virtues clearly no longer protect us we must search beyond.
We must find new ways of thinking whether these come to us from overlooked Indigenous tradition, cyberidentities, art practice, experimental philosophies or paradigm shifts in science . All of these are fruitful responses to the crisis of the anthropocene.
As, I think, psychogeography might be. Psychogeography is a child of situationism, but has been dallying with shamanism for a while too. Being inhabited, haunted, dealing with the margins, and the supplements are the business of our trade – using the tricksterish slogan of ‘Seeing Things As They Really Are'(@Tim Smith, ..)which suggests we live in an illusion of some sort, and that our imaginations might find a reality that is somehow missing ( although of course what is missing might in fact be our imagination)
So digging into this methodology I decided I wanted to create a funeral representation of the absent and unknown creatures.
I dont actually have these kind of craft skills – which is, of course, entirely the point. We end up with a green paper tray covered in straw and leaves I gathered from the edges of a new semi-permanent floodpond near my home , some sugar mice-purchased hurriedly in something that felt like a drug deal from an olde sweetie shop , and used to mould others out of moss and used kitchen towels, purslane seeds ( which apparently grew on Bramble Cay) ,and some Australian incense (which wouldn’t light in the stormwinds of Edinburgh in February). The frustrations , dead ends, ineptness and questing for meaning is what I know to be grief work. It is a process to enter that only gives partial outcomes, and usually leaves you somewhere (else).
Despite the percieved increase in eutrophication (and sugar content) of the already heavily polluted pond, the freezing conditions, and the herd of swans , we launched the tray , which floated out on the strong westerly into the mid distance and sank gradually beneath the water. My friend said it was like watching a feeling happen.
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As I struggled with the process of representation I faced the futility , cost and projections in my task, I was able to ignore or avoid my own decay, overfeed my domestic guest rodents, and engage with what go missing with extinction. The answer as the ecologist, Daniel Jansen*says in terms of biology, and the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose echoes in human terms, is an opportunity to connect, potentially or actually.
As my work sunk under the water, unnoticed by the rest of the world, I felt something of that loss. I may have murmured melomys rubicola under my breath without needing to know exactly what it meant.
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As we looked for a site for extinction day commemorations I checked out the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I had only a mild hope that I might find a melomys amongst the stuffed animal collection. What I did find, was a display board listing some of animals which had become extinct – which did not include the melomys or indeed any other animals which had disappeared since 2010. Which gave the commemoration another more practical focus.
The list of extinct animals I was then to send to the NMS ( including only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish) covering only the years 2017-19, and based only on two reputed websites and a cursory check of the IUCN Red List data base, contained 25 names. It excludes those creatures which live on only in human captivity, which we are best able to watch die out ( like the Northern Rhinoceros or the Spixx Macaw). Some of the species have been declared extinct more than once, as a specimen occassionally blunders out of the undergrowth in some unlooked-for place ( usually at around the time it is being levelled to make way for human activity). Others were only ‘created’ as species after they were gone. So its not really an exact science, but really neither is speciation, which is looking increasingly like an anthropocene construction..
But what is not in doubt is that many, many types of animals are disappearing and that everywhere in the world the trend is for a reduction in variety and overall number of non-domestic animals. We are living in an age of mass extinction, which human activity is ultimately responsible for. For most of our existence as humans we acknowledged our kinship with other creatures , and it is only in the transformations to capitalism that philosophy and science have created these divisions ( and which belatedly both are now striving to close).
To see extinction as a hyperobject, is to see it extending , largely unnoticed into numerous dimensions of existence. Some of these are exemplified in the specific losses noticied by Jansen and Bird Rose – the destabilisation of ecosystems (one wonders what is happening to Bramble Cay without its main herbivore,for example) and the loss of cultural resources ( for example the oft-quoted Lost Words which have vanished from the every day vocabulary of our children), and others are there buried in our psyche. We watch wildlife documentaries , are shamed or activated by images of turtles with plastic around their necks , and maybe are beginning to percieve morality in terms of reducing our environmental impact ( or reacting against those perceptions in aggressive, nationalistic justifications of our privilege).
Around us a shadow army of pets, parasites and animal crops provide us with a distorted connection to that legacy. We are becoming used to finding our friends grieving their pets, upset by the truth of food production, or shocked by the running over of roadkill. Grief is after all, grief, and I suspect that the central part of it is the shock of how fragile life is. Our life.
After some correspondence and a brief protest action the NMS offered me a dialogue about how they commemorate extinction as part of climate change . Can I ask them to do it absurdly?
I d like there to be a way in which connections disappear, and the visitor is left increasingly in a void. Ideally this might be subtle, but colour and noise or smell would disappear.
Or there is a game when it becomes a choice of what to save , but the choice has unintended consequences.
Or they could suddenly find that all the exhibits in the lower level are under three feet of water.
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I realise now that I am going to have to end the article. And in doing so I will feel the loss of the Bramble Cay Melomys, and the rich connections I’ve had from virtually knowing them.
And I will also remember the list of the other known, unknown animals which I’ve learnt about after their end. And think about the unknown, unknown animals I haven’t learnt about. Yet, or more probably, at all.
And now I see the image of Sadness from the film Inside Out , who I think should be there to meet us at the exit of the new exhibit. I m with her now..
* What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction, that of ecological interactions
I keep thnking about the rats. Which are gone. And werent really rats . if there had been real rats the unreal rats would have been gone long ago. But they are now anyway. Ten years ago, and we didnt really say goodbye. Or indeed hello.
The unreal rats were small rodents which lived on a small island, which is part of Queensland, which is part of a large country which appears to be on fire, but is not sure if it can admit that. On Googlemaps the small, uninhabited island ( Bramble Cay) is next to another country called Papua New Guinea (PNG), and is at the north end of the Great Barrier Reef. You have to downscale quite a long way before you get a sight of Queensland, but it has annexed all the islands in the Torres Strait, presumably to control access and mineral rights. It is quite odd to think about a country which (stretching a point ) was founded as a colony of your own country as being a major imperialist power, but there you go. One of the other things that Australia has found useful about the islands off the shores of PNG is to imprison immigrants in much the same way Britain used to do in Australia. There were some fairly nearby when the unreal rats used to live.
There are no brambles on Bramble Cay, but there is some scrub, which looked a bit like them to the itinerant British sailors who named it. The Cay is very small, and considerably smaller now due to global warming, which has caused a rapid sea rise in the Torres Straits, and was very bad news for the unreal rats, which had originally got there when the straits were a land bridge from PNG to Australia, and got left behind. Some people at the Queensland Bureau of Something -sounding-Wildlife-Friendly and a few research scientists knew they were there, but didn’t visit much, saving their efforts for trying to keep alive more accessible wildlife that we are more interested in. The kind of beasts that make it onto the wildlife documentaries that I ve been watching over the holidays. The kind of beast that there might be some outrage about if it was to suddenly not be there. And which we believe we are omnipotent enough to keep alive. Possibly in zoos, or by juggling with them very quickly while their habitat burns around them. These folks have their work cut out.
A few years ago (2009) some game fisherman saw the unreal rats when they landed on the island. In 2014 wildlife rangers went back and couldn’t find them. They set some traps and again, in 2016, there they weren’t. It seemed there had been some floods. John Woinarski, Australia’s leading biodiversity researcher, has published a paper pointing out the lack of strategy, funding and, indeed, interest in preventing the extinction of the unreal rats (and a further two vertebrate spp which the Australian government has not got round to declaring extinct yet, which also lived on small offshore islands, as many rare animals do). In February 2019 the bureaucratic process of declaring something extinct was completed – in fairly quick time as these things go, as where else could those critters have been hiding?
And shortly afterwards someone noticed that this was the first mammalian species extinction that could be unequivocally attributed to anthropocentric climate change. Which makes a good headline, doesnt it? And meant, I found out about it, at a climate psychology event in December. Which would be at least a decade after the unreal rats drowned. In one of the best known and richest countries in the world. Where there are hundreds of professionals who make careers out of studying and protecting these kind of things. You ll allow me to question how unique this event might have been.
There are pictures of the unreal rats on the Net, which make them look gawky and cute, but I am not linking to them. There is a poignancy there for those of us who would look at the dodo, thylacine , great auk and think ‘I ll never see one of those’. But honestly, these animals, ( and maybe some of those others too), were not really valued when they were around, so trying to preserve their image now feels like hypocrisy. It might be better to imagine what we might have lost.
The unreal rats who stalk my dreams look a bit like gerbils ( see blogs passim) , non-descript, opportunistic, herbivorous rodents of the types which scurry across roads in our headlights late at night, or live in our drains, or in our fairy tales , or in cages in our childrens bedrooms where they teach us lessons about love and mortality.
On the radio, tis the season of contemplation. There haven’t been any programmes about losing obscure species in the age of mass extinction, but there has been an episode of ‘Positive Thinking‘ on BBC Radio 4, which pissed me off considerably. Its about how climate change has increased rat infestation in places which may have flooded, and how mass culls of invasive rats in New Zealand (and on some other small islands) ‘may’ give hope that the rat populations could be eradicated ( which is a scientific word for ‘wiped out’). No one suggested that a man with a flute is going to lead them off to the Underland. I just went there by myself.
Instead we might think positively, that large scale community efforts might do the business – apparently people in New Zealand are enjoying spending their weekends trapping rats, in a patriotically inspired campaign to remove a predator on the remnant populations of native fauna ( which by geographical accident did not include any terrestrial mammals), and presumably in the hope these might then revive. Oddly none of the contributors mentioned the other animals which had been introduced there – dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, horses- that have changed the islands irreversibly. Or that the rats are spreading as one of the consequences of global warming, which (along with the floods , contamination and displacement of pests) will go on without them. Unless the guy with the flute sorts it out.
Or about the sense of unease that some of us might feel about deliberately eradicating another species in an age of mass extinction. ( At this point it might be worth noting that Britains most endangered mammal is the black, AKA ship, rat, which survives only on a small private island in the Irish Sea. People I know have got visiting it on their bucket lists.)
Frankly the BBC is desperate to produce greenwash stories which fit into its adapted mission statement to educate us about climate change, without frightening the licence payers or the new establishment , which only a few weeks ago threatened to remove Channel 4 s franchise for replacing an absent BJ with a lump of ice in their climate change debate. Please be deeply sceptical about what these programmes don’t mention. We owe it to the unreal rats.
_Deborah Bird Rose was an Australian writer on environmental humanities with a particular interest in the sociological meaning of extinction . Here is what she says , writing about another endangered species
when scientists offer us numbers,they are talking about a kind of verifiable presence or absence.. However, what is actually occurring us more dire than the numbers indicate.. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blessing, and whole worlds of practice and knowledge diminish. we are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest.
She introduces a concept she calls ‘shimmer’, which she characterizes as noticing connectedness and encounter, with a kind of brilliance which she recognises in Aboriginal culture. It sounds very like the kind of ideas that George Monbiot is describing in his book Feral. Her conclusion is that ‘In the time of extinction, we are going to be asked again and again to take a stand for life , and this means taking a stand for faith in life’s meaningfulness’. By so doing we will encounter the ‘shimmer’ that we are losing from our lives.
I found this memorial to the unreal rats. After I d written all this , natch. The cartoonist clearly believes no one will pay attention to February 18, but I know I will.
I imagine the last rats climbing the shrubs and bushes as the flood waters rise on their island, and as these sink progressively below the water, struggling off in to the waves. I’m reminded that the Wikipedia entry for melomys describes them as the ‘only endemic mammalian inhabitants of the Barrier Reef’ . As they drowned their bodies will have drifted down to the sea bed where they will have joined the skeletons of bleached and dying coral, the plagues of starfish, unfertilised and dying fish eggs, amongst the microplastics, fishing tackle , fuel exhaust and dumped cargo residues which now make up most of what I wrote in my primary school project was’ the greatest natural wonder on earth’.
What on earth have we done?
A windy day in the Tyne Estuary . I am walking out into the flat samphire desert . I d like to get down to ground level and crawl out through the tiny boababs each stem unique and upright in defiance the intolerable salinity.
There’s a driftwood log below the sandbank where the martins have nested. They are tacking across the wind to try and get back into their holes, cutting back into the wind to decelerate and turn and then dropping off to the right. Failing and going round again. I can distinguish the juveniles from their low success rate. At occasional moments I am looking at the heads of oncoming birds, wings outstretched, but artificially stilled, and I remember the illustrations in What to Look for In Summer – a book I stared at for long hours in childhood ( and was not alone in this). The illustrations are by CF Tunnicliffe, the doyen of the expanding field of wildlife art in the post war years . They are iconic images – still life but not stuffed life, tableaux crowded with observable wildlife a little more-closely packed than would ever be likely
but distinctly tickable.. lots of hirundines ,
crowds of butterflies ( maybe feasible in 1960, when the book was first published)
and turnstones, always turnstones, the maestro’s piece de resistance ( turnstones spend the summer in Siberia, although they start to reappear in August, so might make it back for the encore of WTLFIS).
Tunnicliffe’s illustrations are memorable because the birds ( and he is mainly a bird artist )seem to be about to move, and, for the young naturalists Ladybird targeted, there are less obvious things to find in the background (did you see the lizard on the rock?).
I wonder what an illustration of the scene around me today might look like – parched summer estuary, pondering psychogeographer on rock, intrusive long lens photographer stalking rarity, distant samphire collectors, an invasion of painted ladies blowing around, stork-like bird standing out of its carefully drawn background like an overlay.
Or maybe the spoonbills, which have drawn me here, only stand out to me. I wandered Europe a bit when I was younger, egrets on the Guadalquvir, flamingoes in the docks of Sfax and the saltpans of the Camargue, were as much part of the scene I wanted to experience as the names, the language, and the curious foods. Spoonbills, as I learned in my pre-teens, from the Observers Book of Birds, lived in Holland, were ‘remarkable migrants’ and ‘Visitor’ to ‘southern estuaries’, and were not worthy of an expensive illustration in the second edition.
Change has come fast though –
Eurasian spoonbill is a very scarce passage migrant to Scotland, with small numbers occurring especially in spring.
according to the Birds of Scotland, which I bought on publication in 2007. Only sixteen records were made in the second half of July between 1850 and 2004 . But in The BTO Bird Atlas of 2007-11 records of non-breeding usually immature birds occurred in 233 10km squares in Britain, around 20 in Scotland, and a first breeding record occurred.
The Tyne birds I can see wandering in the background today , known as the ‘Fab Five’ (and representing the equal largest group of birds ever recorded in Scotland since 1859), have obtrusively sieved the upper estuary around Buist’s Embankment (again atypical as the birds are usually solitary wanderers) , roosting picturesquely in a dead tree throughout July and into August. I’ve gone down after the thrill has gone. The spoonbills are quietly filtering the mud around the river channel, standing out from a long distance as gloss white (as indeed the incoming egret populations do) , and clearly finding lots to eat. I like the process of locating them , distracting myself, and then finding them again amongst the other white blobs on the estuary -mew gulls, shelducks and at least one plastic bag.
The prevailing ornithological consensus that they will not manage to survive a Scottish winter may also be challenged soon – the Atlas also records a major increase of winter range into the South of England , and that is already ten years out of date ( I’ve stopped buying these kind of books because they date so quickly). Meanwhile colonies in Turkey, the Balkans and the Med are declining . My book mentions habitat destruction, and seems in that way dated too.
Scientists and natural historians are now empowered to mention climate change, but may not yet be obliged to do so. It sort of spoils the bucolic otherness of our idyll. But that why they are here. They are climate refugees. I d like to say my distant white blobs look bemused or out of place, but they don’t . One estuary full of shrimps is much like another.
We now have the egrets, cranes and spoonbills of the other side of the north Sea. Vagrant storks are following. Flamingoes are breeding successfully on the Dutch/German border. Our local council talks about the potential upside of climate change for our tourist industry – they ll be pleased about this..
As a person I ve been losing things most of my adult life. For a while I considered this an irritating maladaption to the demands of competent masculinity ( I probably wouldn’t have used that term though). I’ve now learned to enjoy the pleasures of rediscovery and redemption, as well as the immersion in the river of things that passes while I look for my keys.
Absence is part of life. Loss is permanent (or unwanted) absence. Items of biota are always going missing, and usually return. We love them more because they do. You can tell the first sightings of the season – buttercups , swallows or skeins of geese- but how do you know its the last? How would you know its the last ever? And if you’ve started to wonder that how do you refrain from hanging on?
My current immersion in the river of things started when I began to become concerned that absences were turning into losses. That it was becoming harder to find things I d taken for granted – butterflies, skylarks , grasshoppers, hedgehogs. Things I had looked for in summer.
So the main element in what to look for in the future will be lack. The space once occupied by.. cuckoos. for example. Bernie Krauss talks about the gaps in the sonograms of denuded environments which evolved niches for particular bird songs spacing out to maximise their impact for the listening species mates. The sonograms confirm the absences that we might not easily notice, or put down to nostalgia.
Lack of honey bees. There arent many pollenators in the illustrations in WTLFIS. Small details seem to have been technically or contractually impossible to reproduce. Vaguely turd shaped honey bees are servicing the lime trees above some housemartin nests (more hirundines). Those honey bees are around a garden , and thats probably the best place to see them now. I have become able to cycle downhill through the farmlands of east lothian without getting a face full of flies . The word ‘agri -desert’ would have made no sense to Tunnicliffe, but might have been part of the premonition of Rachel Carson which was happening around that time ,and we now take for granted to the extent we are surprised that things still survive amongst the crops.
What to Look for in An Age of Mass Extinction?
Small items about distant natural disasters at the end of the news
Large items about nearby near natural disasters at the start of the news
Unfeasibly cheery items about accords, developments, technological breakthroughs and research elan.
Somewhere nearby where you can by an electric fan
Clouds of flying ants
A day trip to see a butterfly
Seagulls attacking children and family pets.
Ash dieback and oak processionary moths
Flamingoes on the Wash
Nostalgia support groups (and indeed political parties)
My own whimsy this summer has been to learn more wildflowers, and it has gone well. I ve spent a lot of time looking down.
The attention I’ve paid to the below the knee has taught me that there is a constant series of flowerings which sequence the weeks from April to September stretching out into a procession of ancient names and associations – aconites,coltsfoots, ransoms, bluebells, campions, hawksbeards, meadowsweet, toadflax, herb bennet, hellborine , centaury, gentian.., the tangle, the word tangles, the word ‘tangle’,also a seaweed – the pollen , in the breath, the tangled breath ..they bud, explode , get up your nose , get the bees drunk, wilt, fade and disappear, their names likewise forgotten and recovered next time round. We hope.
What to look for in summer is summer. It is the passage of the sun across the sky , the growth and decay, the green fuse driving those flowers. Dx/dt, experiencing time as curving, and then the serpent swallowing its mouth and time being circular. Normally.
When I play with my cat , who knows if I am not a pastime to her , more than she is to me? ( Montaigne, quoted in Derrida)
Sometime towards the end of the last millenium the philosopher Jacques Derrida made a nocturnal visit to the toilet and was met, expectantly , by his cat. Derrida, naked, was also figuratively undressed by the experience.
‘Why should it matter to me, that my cat, who I presume it does not matter to , meets me naked, and what does the impact of that concern mean in terms of how we meet as Beings ?’ , he thought, except in French, and with a lot more rigour and quotations. And carried on thinking about it over a lecture series later published as ‘The Animal that Therefore I am’
You might imagine that would be a pretty exhaustive amount of liminal pondering. However twenty years have passed and the ethical climate has changed as far as interspecies interactions go.
Over that period connotations of the word ‘Derrida’ have moved away from images of the Johnny Rotten of philosophy Gallicly-gobbing all over sacred texts to the bewildered spluttering of Oxbridge types rowing their logical-positivist punt gently down the stream, and onto a cuddly Mon Oncle of oracular ambiguity , comfortingly referenced in popular song, biopic and every self-respecting artists catalogue notes, with the reassuring option that we loved him because he was surely too complicated to take seriously, like pretend-butter-wouldnt-melt in his mouth.
Thus Derrida s piece on The Animal is adapted from a ten hour lecture series he gave annually in a French chateau to a bunch of his Bachelaureated pals. That is – we ll book you a castle, you turn up and talk about what you like for a few hours and we ll turn it into a book for you. Pretty much middle-aged-don fantasy land. We should probably be grateful there is , as usual, some body to it.
Derrida, I like to think, because my Derrida was amazingly knowing, willingly gave up himself (or part(s) thereof) up as a text. For example , the Man Who (failed to ) Encounter His Cat and therefore remained unfortunately left behind in the Anthropocene, as out of date as the Metal Box, yet having made possible all useful thinking ( or music) since.
Thinking concerning the animal , if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. Thus you have a thesis – it is what philosophy has essentially had to deprive itself of.
(intro, The Animal.., Derrida)
There will be a T shirt somewhere. It might even be in my wardrobe.
The question of suffering led Derrida to the virtue of pity , and that is not a small thing. But how much more promise is there in the questions – can animals play? or work? And even, can I learn to play with this cat? Can I the philosopher respond to an invitation or recognise one when it is offered? What if work and play, and not just pity, open up when the possibility of mutual response without power is taken seriously as an everyday practice available to philosophy and to science. What if a useable word for this is joy? And what if the question of how animals engage one another’s gaze responsively takes centre stage for people? What if this is the query, once it’s protocol is properly established , whose form changes everything? My guess is that Derrida the man in the bathroom , grasped all this but that Derrida the philosopher had no idea how to practice this sort of curiosity.
Elsewhere in her essay Haraway does (thankfully) acknowledge that D may have had other fish to fry in his lectures ( animals as an example of ambiguous categorization, deconstructive critique of how philosophy usually operates and how it fails parts of reality and human experience by cramming experience into binary categories, what it means to be naked , that sort of thing). However she is also deliberately using his exalted status to dare to suggest there may be a royal road into intersubjectivity and Being , in the ruins of a precarious world, through concrete relations with non-humans, and this requires an overturning of some sacred cows (although not, of course, actual ones, unless with their consent).
Haraway is particularly interested in what it means to touch a living animal. These then are the embodied encounters at the margins , limits or chiasmic zones ( depending on your French philosopher of choice) which involve processes of consent and trust , risk and play , which are mutual and negotiable , and of course non-verbal – at least on the side of the animal.
Her interest, which I am allowed to find sentimental , is mostly in dogs , which I am allowed to find ‘unnatural’, but also creates a more general challenge to what is acceptable ethically ( what rights do companion species have?) and as discourse ( can we build a usable body of work out of anecdotes about our pets/lives/subjectivity?). One claim which is indisputable is that the sentiment of people towards animals has been written out of sciences such as ethology ( and in my experience, ecology, where the quadrats were never quite as randomly thrown as they were supposed to be) , and the influences that animals may have had on scientists may be narrating our histories as we narrate theirs.
The work of Vincianne Despret is wonderfully revealing of this.
One of the things which has been written out , and may be even more significant to how we do discourse, is that learning is always contextual and subjective , and is about learning with, rather than learning about. And if we can take that approach we can dispense with futile discussions about the privileged position of the human subject – and instead acknowledge that difference is always given, but never essential or profound and only contextually significant.
If my source of love and warmth comes from an individual is it so significant that they are of a different species so long as the experience is mutually beneficial and consenting?
Perhaps, although I wonder how much pets can consent? Time to feed the gerbils..
The gerbils have found themselves in a cage in my kitchen. They might be in a burrow somewhere in Uzbekhistan, where they would be able to build a proper nest site, and find mates , but might also freeze or starve to death, or be predated by the steppe eagle.
I feel a kind of guilt about their lack of stimuli, and have tried to introduce sticks , outings and multi level living spaces for them to explore. I don’t know how to tell if a gerbil looks bored, but I ve assumed that a more active and less sluggish animal is somehow more fulfilled. This is what the wildlife docs tell me, but is probably psychological projection. Sometimes when in unfamiliarly exciting territory the gerbils stamp alarm calls, and move jerkily and restlessly. Other times not- one pleasant outing ended when they made a nest in the washing machine tub amongst the dirty clothes. This becomes a nice story-to-tell-about-our-pets – we exclude from it that there is no source of food and safety in the home environment (or beyond it appears, colonies of escaped gerbils in the UK have been recorded but have all died out, probably from starvation)- and we credit them with a discernment that recognises the washing machine as a suitable spot for a nest -rather than carrying out a habitual and automatic behaviour futilely in an alien environment.
Who knows? I may be the Animal who speaks , but they are the other animals who don’t, and any interpolations are really guesses. I think that Haraway is saying something about this, that the sense of knowledge which is abstracted is in fact trapped in the assumptions of its authors, and what we have instead , truthfully, are emotional, embodied reactions to guide us.
Interpollation is a term recovered by philosopher Louis Althusser to describe how sujects are constituted from concrete individuals by being ‘hailed’ through ideology in to the modern state. Today, through our ideologically loaded narratives of their lives, animals ‘hail’ us as animal people to account for the regimes in which they and we must live. We ‘hail’ them into our constructs of nature and culture, with major consequences of life and death, health and illness, longevity and extinction. We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. In that is our hope.. (Haraway from Where Creatures Meet)
‘Hailed ‘ is an odd term – I suspect at the end of two awkward translations, from medieval French , through the lexicon of the Ecole Superieure and into English. I read, instead, ‘challenged’ or ‘ situated’. I wonder how much animals hail us, and how much other peoples ( cultural) expectations do? In my own small experiment the eye of a hungry gerbil is hard to ignore, but you can avoid going past the cage – much like we choose not to look at factory farming, or the mass extinction of lots of species we don’t know much about.
Donna Haraway’s example of living with each other in the flesh seems to be mainly about dog training for obstacle courses, which is a sport where she is, well away, I imagine,from anywhere that races greyhounds. Elsewhere she considers the world of champion pigeon racers. Both appeal to her as examples of cyborg living , bending the rules and boundaries of subject and object. Vincianne Despret also talks about interactions between farmers and livestock, experimenters and lab animals, and trainers and parrots. She describes how an African Grey Parrot is motivated to speak by being ignored, and then rewarded, and how it required an engagement in the life of the trainer to continue to do so. But the significant thing was that this process was found by trial and error, and by negotiation with the animal.
The only way me and the gerbils approach interspecies play is around food. Food is probably the one incentive of a captive animal around which it will negotiate with its captors. Its the traditional training treat of every circus and pet behaviour programme. We handfed the gerbils as an attempt to get them used to handling. They learnt to associate us with food, and our arrival in the kitchen as a potential feeding time, when they dance around their cage being very obvious. Gerbils have preferred foods they will eat in order, so there is also an interesting discourse about being fed (and accepting) less popular foods , or holding out, and importuning for better morsels. There is a certain dance around whether or when they will eat what they are given , and how much energy they will expend on requesting better. But if we give them what they want they are quickly gone.
In the midst of these relationships are moments when we (‘the humans’) are not sure what they are doing, and they (‘the animals’) guide them by their responses. I guess the hope Haraway speaks about is that we may see a way of coevolving with others ( companion species) which is more appropriate to coexistence and does not alienate or exclude creatures from subjectivity or participation. And in doing so we will be able to move on from the generalizations and faux objectivity which have trapped our discourse over the last couple of centuries Then as Jim Morrison once said there might be a ‘store where the creatures meet’..
May 5. Gordon Moss SWT Nature Reserve, Berwickshire.
I went through a period of collecting nature reserves. I visited a new one whenever I could. At first I may have been imagining they would be full of tapdancing otters juggling freshwater crayfish, but I soon got over that. Next I had a ‘Why here?’ phase which would have involved locating and trying to appreciate what I learnt to call Intrinsic Ecological Value. And I have a BSC (hons) now (in Latin) which licenses me to locate, so I can square with you that there is no such thing. Instead nature reserves are affordable compromises between vaguely endangered habitats, land values and pervasive marketing by someone or other. And Intrinsic Ecological Value is something ecologists may feel when they are happy.
While this was going on I discovered nature reserves were good places to experience the strange connection between stuff and our experience of stuff This also happens for other people (and me too sometimes) in art galleries, libraries, and occasionally in sporting arenas . That sense of appreciation of involvement I’ve since been learning to find in other, familiar places and sometimes in nowhere at all.
I went to a new reserve today to try to wake up. I ve been out of step for a while, convalescing, reading and listening. About mass extinction, Rebellion, the anthropocene and its end, and maybe some things that seem like beginnnings .
So I disappeared into Gordon Feuars Moss for a few hours and will tell you what I found there.
If you just looked up Gordon Moss on the internet you ll have found the biog of some doctor, but scroll down and you might find some stuff about a Scottish Borders woodland. It has an interesting but typical history as a common for the local tenants – a piece of poor quality land ‘gifted’ by the local landowner at the time of enclosure to compensate for the traditional rights of subsistence grazing, hunting and gathering , which we have learnt to call trespass and poaching, which they had just ‘given up’. The word ‘Feuar’ echoes that history , a joint and several stewardship of something which is basically a sponge covered in small,stubby trees – which has, in its nature, proved resistant to profitable improvements.
I imagine the difficult legalities and permissions of common land will have aided its transfer into a SWT reserve, as will the obstinate nature of the stubbly sponge, now reclassified as lowland raised bog, one of the most rapidly disappearing habitats in the UK . While not exactly discouraging visitors, the current owners point out there are no improved access, paths and to beware of adders. I anticipate a quiet morning. There are no adders, but I wont be mentioning that to any dogowners.
And there are access paths but they are made by mammals who habitually move on all fours ( and by two legged ones who visit rarely, and not recently). I crouch and weave and bob into the tangle. Crossing the reserve is a disused railway track, which is like a score through the various attempts to domesticate the site – abandoned coppicings, pondweeded drainage-ditches, and embadgered spoil-sandpits – and now provides an anchoring point from which to plunge-dive into the trees.
There is something physically engaging about being in a nature reserve that probably exceeds the stretch of an art gallery or football match, and evokes the tense excitement of searching and ( sometimes,but not predictably) finding. The things I find may not be rare, and often they seem to capture me rather than the other way. Amongst the dimmed lights and myriad shadows, the movements of a warbler (constant, staccato) or a treecreeper ( vertical, clockwork) are engaging. A slight blueing of the green marks violets, a different brindle reveals the bark and leaf mounds of a birch covert raising itself up, or the remnant sphag bog of the past ( both the bogs and mine – how we loved that pun in our student days). If I stop to think about it, I am happy.
Yet I am also deeply sad. In 1980 I trained as an ecologist ( and learnt about Intrinsic Ecological Value) because I was aware of the cost of the anthropocene ( we might have called it ‘disturbing the balance of nature’). I was convinced of the imminent danger of the way we were living. Last week a political committee acknowledged the climate and environment catastrophe. The response highlighted on the radio news was that there were things that something called ‘Britain’ could select to do to make it go away. A technology centre in Cambridge hopes to increase carbon capture by replacing trees with improved android versions.
There are many things I reasonably believed when I was eighteen which haven’t happened , and were based on the evidence of others – nuclear war, or the end of Tory governments- but I can see for myself the increasing speed and scope of environmental change. Its already happened, its not a choice.
Gordon Moss, I can see is rapidly drying out. This type of habitat -lowland raised bog is increasingly rare. It is reclaimed for agricultural land, dug up for peat compost, or covered in conifer plantation. Because of its obstinate land tenure and drainage system, Gordon has avoided these. However the water table is falling quickly. In many ways this makes it a more pleasant place – drier. I didn’t need my wellies. The SWT have been able to cut out clearings to encourage violets that pearl bordered fritillaries ( a butterfly with a very specific and endangered lifestyle) may colonize. I find sycamore and hawthorn stretching down the rail track, the orange HI-VIS lichen of edgy-lands xanthoria climbing up the branches, the retreat of the sphagnum puddings, and huge exposed reed tussocks, left high and dry as the sponge dried out.
This does happen anyway, as far as we know. Ecologists largely believe in something called succession, which suggests that in time on a given site communities of organisms grow which are grander ( and possibly more intrisincally ecologically valuable) than before. I ve used the word ‘grander’ because when we get down to it, exactly what increases, numbers of species, size of species, amount of species, or cuddliness and photoopportunity of species seems a little unclear. And highly questionable. But we do mostly agree that in time bogs turn into woods.
However the speed of change is unprecedented. Those reed clumps raise themselves each year into tussocks above the surface of a raised bog. Usually the bog grows with them , and the sphagnum does the same , and the whole thing retains its moisture in the surface. But look at these below as I did – they are now nearly a metre above the surface of , well , its not a raised bog anymore, is it? South East Scotland simply doesnt have the rainfall to support this anymore and so , unless they are improbably or artificially watered, they are simply shrivelling up.
Almost any form of nature study now has a sense of mourning. My other possible activity that Sunday morning was a trip to Dunbar to see a spotted sandpiper. This is a rather elegant and delicate wading bird, described in the indelicate terminology of birding as a North American vagrant. It is a close relative of a bird we call the common sandpiper , which migrates from Africa to nest on shorelines of upland rivers and lochs in Northern Europe, at around the same time the spotted does the same on the other side of the Atlantic. I was reading about the common sandpiper here the week before.
One of the good things about the increasing numbers of birdwatchers is the record of population change and the ability to track migrations. Researchers have established substantial falls in the numbers of common sandpipers returning to their territories each year. Most disappear on the northerly migration, due to severe storms, or may have failed to build up condition for the journey due to reduced feeding opportunities in the mangrove swamps of West Africa. They disappear into, or across the ocean. And it appears that spotted sandpipers, first identified in Scotland in 1974, are increasingly doing the same. A rare bird will bring a crowd of birders to photograph and record it , in a way which the absence of a commonplace one will not. But both are an absence. The spotted at Dunbar will not be in Saskatchewan , not be breeding, and will pitch into the sea sometime on its return journey south and west
Twitchers, the more determined and performative birdwatchers, will be alerted by severe storms and weather patterns to the possibility of a specimen of a new species being blown ashore, to be recorded in their notebooks, and then die. They rarely read about the lifestyles, habitat or precariousness of the vagrants they encounter. I’ve yet to hear of a birder carbon-offsetting their journey or mourning the coming death of the creature they make a record photo of. But perhaps, as the disquiet increases, this might change.
My own quest with my hobbies is to find a way I can acknowledge beauty and loss at the same time. I think it is about the uniqueness of each encounter, and the precariousness of it. Gordon will not the same if I return in five years. If I return in ten it may not be a bog , but a wood. So we have this moment together only, and are already always saying goodbye to something we love.
The Mushroom at the End of the World –
On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2015
I believe that contexts create the possibility of products which fit them well. And that the recognition of that process, whether we understand it ecologically, evolutionarily, philosophically or aesthetically, is a lesson which is both hopeful, and at the same time, profoundly disenchanting.
This book both describes such a process and is I think itself part of a number of other such processes, which I’d like to feel part of. Discussing the possibility of life in the post-capitalist ruins feels an essential, if immodest, ambition.
I will not spend much time here on a book review. It has been well and favourable covered for example, here. It s a study by an anthropologist , with interests in the history of science , feminism and economics , of the history and cultural formations of a trade in matsutake mushrooms , which are a delicacy in Japan ( think truffles, perhaps) , but increasingly need to be sourced internationally ( China, Finland, Pacific Coast North America) and sped around the world in aircraft . The mushrooms have very demanding and specific growing conditions, which make them pop up in (ecologically ) marginal places and are harvested by (socially and economically) marginal people, and sold on for top dollar.
And in so many books I’ve eagerly read which consider the present as it informs the future, that would be it. A critique or a well-described idea. And a suggestion that this could lead somewhere if only..
What impressed me deeply about this book is what more it does, its generosity of ideas. Tsing has collected, developed or coined at least a dozen ideas which would – like it says on the cover- help us to think usefully about where we are going – into the capitalist ruins. These include ideas that relate to methodology ( assemblage ), ecology(disturbance), economics( scalability, salvage accumulation), anthropology( boundary object, science as translation) and politics( precariousness, indeterminacy). They are worked out, applied to the study area of the matsutake assemblage, and referred to other contexts. Much of the work she reports is collaborative, cross cultural and innovative.
About her work she makes the aside
Radical curiosity beckons. Perhaps an anthropologist, trained in one of the few remaining sciences that value observation and description, might come in handy.
Amongst all this my favourite part of the book is her observation and description of how different hunters ( different in culture, age, gender and purpose) forage for matsutake and particularly her observation of the attunements they make to create some method to find ( and remember how they found) an underground sporing body growing in the vast unmarked regrowth woodlands of the pacific north west.
It is a form of forest knowledge and appreciation without the completeness of classification – instead searching brings us to the liveliness of beings experienced as subjects rather than objects
However for blog purposes and brevity, what I want to look at is her idea of ‘latent commons’. Like many of Tsing’s ideas this operates simultaneously (and slightly ‘without the completeness of classification’). at many levels, and has the potential of being an engine for living differently.
She introduces it via an account of one of the many local heroes in this book, an educator and community organizer in rural Oregon named Beverly Brown who and encountered, translated and empowered via training and sponsoring conversations in the disparate linguistic groups around the nexus of matsutake harvest there.
Brown’s advocacy for political listening inspires me to think past a disturbance in our aspirations. Without progress, what is struggle?
Brown’s political listening addresses this. It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being. Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.
The word common is carefully chosen. it echoes the set asides that still lie puzzlingly fallow on maps around ancient European townships (although they are frequently lively and contested places) – Clapham Common, Common Ridings, Common Good funds, and a long term eco-political concern , The ‘tragedy of the commons’, the appropriation and capitalist exploitation of the physical resources they have always implied ( see also, in a local example, Andy Wightman’s work ).
However there is a subtle distinction being made by Tsing – the richness of commons for her is the interaction of human and biological actors around a ‘common’ site, rather than the resource itself.
We need many kinds of alertness to spot potential allies. Worse yet the common agendas we detect are undeveloped , thin spotty and unstable. At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But living with indeterminacy , such glimmers are the political.
So ubiquitious , undeveloped , elusive yet effable and productive – here are the further characteristics Tsing identifies of latent commons
- Latent commons are not exclusively human enclaves
- Latent commons are not good for everyone
- Latent commons don’t institutionalize well
- Latent commons cannot redeem us.
I ve interpreted those a little for myself. For a common to form there needs to be a (common) interest in an external . There will have to be interaction and compromise. This a way of articulating and reaching an assemblage of part identities. The solutions she suggests mirror those researched by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom who found there were often contextual and pragmatic processes which had allowed commons to remain in use. Tsing s emphasis would be on the value of the new social formations created.
Tsing’s final point is emphasized via a pamphlet she quotes in the text
the spectre that many try not to see is a simple realization – the world will not be ‘saved’. If we don’t believe in a global revolutionary future , we must live (as we in fact always had to) in the present
Concentrates the mind wonderfully that..
I d like to end (as is traditional at this time of year) with some contenders for latent commons. The first one came to me via a blog called Wader Tales. which addresses the catastrophic loss of numbers of wading bird populations in the UK, through the translation of applied scientific research which concerns these birds as they make their near constant hemispheric journeys in search of food and breeding sites. This particular piece is about observation of the ecology which will allows waders to continue to produce young in farmland in Iceland, but it is also exemplary of similar studies being done in the UK to encourage the diminishing population of curlew. Note the ‘alertness to spot potential allies’.
My second one is a film I watched this month by Agnes Varda entitled the Gleaners and I. Its almost historic now ( released in 2000), but what I think is notable for the idea of latent commons is what happens in the making of the film which apply the metaphor of gleaning and indeterminacy to documentary making , and how that takes us all to wholly unexpected places. There is a new, collaborative Agnes Varda film out this year Faces and Places, where she enters the France of the yellow vests and returns with a very different sense of community – one which has a message which speaks to the challenges of indeterminacy and latent commons.
A final and more speculative one concerns the renegotiation of the use of the upland areas of Scotland. Although at some level this can be seen as a history of legislation , at a practical level it is worked out , by the progressive understanding of these areas as a latent common described by the word ‘ours’, and an increasingly engaged group of people reestablishing their presence in the landscape and noticing the struggles of animals and plants to remain there. Thus every footfall and encounter which takes place int previously privatised, enclosured and de-accessed uplands has the possibility of reanimating it. The suggestion of legislation and commissions are producing thought about what kinds of commons can exist in the uplands.
I’ll quickly name check the magnificent Raptor Persecution blog spot, the campaign to overturn SNHs licensing of a raven cull in Perthshire, and of course the community land buyouts which have begun to allow local people to consider that they might have a say in how the environment around them is used.
I m not utopian in this – I can see losses and setbacks , dangers of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooting in our own bit hill and glen , and my beloved upland waders being chased off their nests by the right-to-roaming labrador herds, but I will end this post with a memory of an event on a cold Saturday morning in December when thirty disparate souls climbed onto Calton Hill to hack back gorse bushes and open up basking sites for grayling butterfly which are recolonizing the city. At the same time each of those people were building their own connection with that place, and potentially with each other.
* I got a fungi identification guide this year which proudly describes 2400 British species. These guys are somewhere between pp 476 and 518. But I m pretty sure they aren’t matsutake.
I am sure Tim Morton has been called a charlatan before- he may even have done it himself.. He is not a philosopher who requests reasoned careful answers. He may not be a philosopher at all.
The appeal he makes is to be a new kind of thing. Or a different kind of thing. And the reason for this is Ecological Catastrophe. This is something I know a little bit about.
Ever since it was suggested as being a thing ‘Ecology’ has been a source of imperatives. The metaphor contained in the term is housekeeping, and periodically it had become a demand to Put Your House in Order. Haeckel, a utopian, Tansley, a cryptofascist, Ehrlich, a neo-liberal , Gorz, a neo -Marxian, Irigaray, a feminist, Lovelock, a scientismist and even prince Bloody Charles have all told us what we need to do to save the planet. Like Mary Douglas says in Purity and Danger , nature is one of the four arbiters of right behaviour.
Morton’s approach is rather different. For him an ecological ethic is postmodern and anti-authoritarian. Facts are not political, they are facts – climate change is evident, it is not an imperative. What is to be encouraged is to live well, which means living ecologically, or at least in awareness of what we are.
This does not mean doing lots of recycling,, but investing in practices that are more embodied, instinctive, creative and interactive.
.Walking nearby along a parallel path I discovered the feminist thinker and historian of science Donna Haraway and her cohort. Haraway sees no need to contest history.. She creates a selective herstory of connection and complexity, which through neologism, cross reference and imaging suggests a futurology of kinship and symbiosis, which will be familiar to readers of Ursula Le Guin. Her metaphors are biological rather than philosophical – lichens, spiders, webs. She is big on detail , endlessly making kin, crediting connections and informants. It is a rich brew – weaved in it is the work of others such as Anna Tsing, Scott Gilbert, Vincianne Despret, which I hope to blog about soon
They seem surprisingly unable to meet. Morton is consciously slippery and anti-heroic, yet his practices are mainly singular and within the canon. In her recent work Haraway’s claims of thinking anew ( ‘Think We Must’) hide orthodoxies within her practice which are not examined. Connections and tentacles are good because spiders make them – we are entering the Chthulucene era, and we need new metaphors. Reducing human population (‘Making Kin Not Babies’) is seen as a necessary moral imperative ( although not a prescriptive one) to conserve resources. As a slogan that seems unctious to me and, yes, prescriptive in its moralizing.
Both versions try to see us a part of nature. Morton wants us to see our nature as part of nature. Haraway (like Irigaray) sees feminine values and masculine ones as having different origins and developments. She sees the masculine ones as deeply connected with the Anthropocene ( as does Morton via his concept of agrilogistics) and the feminine ones as an appropriate response to ecocrisis – and an overlooked counterpoint running through the Anthropocene.
Maybe predictably, given my gender, I currently respond more strongly to the Morton version. I don’t know if all women would always want to be connecting and weaving and co-creating and entangling, but I feel that is only a partial response to a fragile world. All metaphors have unintended consequences – but i think we need to avoid getting drawn uncritically into overarching ones.
Ive just heard that the British Sunday papers , during the week the UN has stated that there is less than a decade before global warming reaches a point where life will be unsustainable, have managed to print only one article about any of this. Although this is at one level horrifying, it is at another quite predictable. Morton has not only predicted this, but analysed it too in his book Being Ecological.
We probably can’t think usefully about the consequences of global warming ( or Mass Extinction in the term Morton prefers) (see here also the response of Rebecca Solnint). The ecological thinking of Morton, Haraway, and the Dark Mountain crowd are usefully suggesting that thinking differently is necessary and possibly inevitable.
So far we haven’t been too good at unpicking the grand metaphors in ‘Natural History’ . And while I am not keen on the creation of more of these ( like agrilogistics, for example) I can see the attraction of radical change. What I like about Being Ecological is the section entitled ‘A Brief History of Ecological Thought’. This starts with an extended discussion of Homer Simpson’s teenage music choices, defies the notion of ‘history’ , deconstructs the styles of ecological thought as responses to not knowing, and ends thusly
You area fully embodied being who has never been separated from other biological beings both inside and outside your body, not for one second. You are sensitively attuned to everything happening in your world which is why you end up blocking some of it, because you are afraid of the stimulation might be too intense. You have an idea that there is an inside and an outside of yourself , and perhaps this is the deepest way in which you start to think that being ecological involves some massive change.
Which might be a good place to start. After I ve rewatched Homerpalooza.
An Inside and an Outside of Yourself
Morton suggests that we use a greatly restricted portion of our consciousness in thinking about the world ( rather than experiencing it). He believes the thinkers of experience and consciousness ( principally Kant and Heidegger) have artificially excluded the possibilities of Being for things( which might include animals, but also art, and possibly tables) So in answer to the ‘What would it be like to be a Bat?’ question, his answer would be ‘Dunno,lets try and imagine that as best we can (which is probably phenomenologically)’.
He suggests this type of thought , and about this type of stuff is an exclusion at the heart of anthropocene thought – although clearly not in the Romantic l.iterature he began his work with (and I can also find these questions interestingly asked , albeit in a human context, by Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Deleuze and Irigaray).
I wonder whether we need to grant other things or beings consciousness if we accept they have intentionality- that they are part of our consciousness and we ( at least in a cultural sense) are part of theirs. That consciousness is never an abstract concept (and neither really is thinking) but only possible as being about something, and that thing as vorhandenheit, affects the type of responses we have about it. ( is this a kind of conservatism).
What might that look like? Morton s big example is the Rothko Chapel, but I might suggest Gaston Bachelard‘s meditations on home, the playful attempts to be like an animal of Charles Foster , or the deconstruction/wilding of the white cube space of the Talbot Rice Gallery by Lucy Skaer and Fiona Connor, which I saw recently. I like these examples because they are embodied , phenomenological responses, which allow that there might be more than one response , and avoid the kind of ecorighteousness which creeps along under the Black Forest mysticism of Heidegger, and the witchdoctory prescriptions of shamanism. In terms that i hope Tim Morton might like, we can muck about a bit.
It might reasonably be asked in response – what is not phenomenologically engaged practice? There is a bit of a clue in the question – passive, pseudo-rational formulations, and work in the style of agrilogistics (Morton). This is undoubtedly complicated by the realization that works become vorhanden , and are completed only by the response of the receiver, so that even the most insensitive architectural blueprint or fashion statement might be reclaimed – say via the Oxfam store, wanderings of psychogeographers, or a community buyout of the local football club. A good example would be the history of the brutal, reactionary , functionally useless and now hauntingly vacant and ruined Cardross Seminary.
Which makes me consider my own cultural practice – these blog posts. They came from my insides. These do seem to have a life of their own , if largely dormant – that is they are now, outside. They are occasionally read by algorithms, and even actual people – who may entangle bits of them in their own practice. WordPress every so often encourage me to get better at marketing in the hope they will be able to charge me for using their platform, but I assume only if I become wildly popular , which I am skilled at not doing. Every so often I’ll tidy them up a bit and wonder why I wrote them – and go back inside. Usually I ll recognise an impulse or a moment they are responding to. Somewhere back on the site you can find a mission statement – I d claim it all as my best response to precariousness.
Morton also wants to ask
What if charisma was actual?
(He is talking here about the charisma of an art object , rather than that of a trickster or charlatan, but i think we need to consider both)
I distrust charisma massively, as I have learnt from the tradition of skepticism. I would spend a long time analysing exactly what makes us love, or awed, or hate. I can accept in most rational senses this would be futile. But the quest would be about deconstructing and defusing power. It is to try to undermine the impact of the demagogue.
What would it be like to put that aside? Would I then believe We Are Taking Our Country Back, or that Things Go Better with Coke?
‘Critique mode is the pleasure of non-pleasure, the sadistic purity of washing your hands of the crime of being seduced, as if detuning were about exiting attunement space rather than what really happens, which is only retuning’
I have a visceral emotional reaction to what I think of as bad art. I think , to nick his terms this is about being dragged into attunement against my will. This involves the nausea of a betrayed gut feeling. So he’s sort of right. I remember identifying it (at length during Four Weddings and A Funeral ( I m not going to link to that, the bastards are rich enough already), during the (numerous) sections which manufactures a technical scenario purely to draw out an emotional response which should be, in my view, entirely personal and voluntary. I am not proud of having paid to watch it, in an actual cinema, but I will add that it was cold outside and there were few alternatives.
We’d like to believe real artists (the ones we like) is so caught up in their internal struggle with creativity that they’d never do this, so Rothko draws a pure response from us. Maybe, but what about Damian Hurst, or Banksy, or Picasso( and some people really, really like the updated romanticism of 4WAF)? Or the manufactured tension of lets say, the Bourne Conspiracy (which I might secretly be seduced by). My point in these type of arguments is we will never be able to define what art is, and that’s whats good about it.
I think there is a distinction to make between artefact ( which includes art) and phenomena( which might include art experience). There is absolutely a need to explore sceptically artefacts ( lest we forget Goebels and Saatchi and Saatchi), and absolutely the right to experience the charisma , aura or vorhanden-ness of phenomena. It seems unproblematic from this perspective to say that phenomenological experience linking the inside ( emotions and thoughts) to the outside ( stuff) via our sense data connects us to a world experience which will make us engage with it, and reciprocally makes us ourselves. This would be close to Morton’s idea of ecological consciousness.
My own ethic is that it is a uncomfortable (if sometimes exciting) space that involves reordering the environment. The odd stone tower is not going to destroy a beach, but does the dog need to be redesigned, and do the Scottish Highlands need to be reforested?
These discussions need scepticism, and maybe to avoid becoming lodged forever in conservatism, they also need charisma – by which I mean the power of actual specifics to work on us.
Many of these are completely random – while I searched for an example of environmentally conscious practice, my commute took me past the local chiropodist who have chosen to name their business TOE-FU *.
There is, at no level, anything about the manipulative power of this advertising which would draw anyone to go and get their feet done, but since there has to be some indication that it’s there, then making random bus passengers laugh is a fine enough example of Bataillean excess, Mortonian charisma,or the skilled use of lumpen Scots to be worth reproducing.
I might have picked a more sublime example , or one which feels more well , environmental. But I didn’t – you can if you want. Ecology is the study of the organism in its environment, ecological consciousness must be about engaging with what you do, and feeling a physical response to it. So pardon the pun.
*Just in case I ever have an international readership ( apart from the algorithm from Singapore) the – fu suffix in Scots vernacular is equivalent to -ful (e.g handful, although not, strangely, useful, or beautiful , which we don’t use in Scots). The local pronounciation here puts the stress on the first syllable and shortens the final vowel sound , so it does sound a lot like bean curd.