Extinction Day

 

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.

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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?

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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)

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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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This is not a melomys, it is a gerbil in mild peril, but it is the sort of thing I had in mind.

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.

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Before..

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.

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After, or at least on Melomys Extinction Day  (February 18).  The NMS has now promised to update the exhibit.  We ll see..

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

 

 

So long, melomys rubicola

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.

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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.

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_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.

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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?

 

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

derridas-cat 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.

Donna Haraway revisits the encounter in her Where Species Meet.. and wants to challenge Derrida for failing to give space to what the cat may have wanted, and to make a true encounter.

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..


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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.

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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’..

 

 

 

The poignancy of bogs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_20190505_123321888And 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Walter Benjamin’s ghost

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This isnt a picture of Walter Benjamin. Those are on the internet. This is Longwood open air  theatre in Kirklees. Other images come from Bo’ness, Humbie Churchyard and the Necropolis, Glasgow

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.

My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied.  I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.

Of course dear reader that is not what happened.  We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.

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I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter. (See Comment below, 2019)

I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless.  And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour  trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile  phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.

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While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.

 

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Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.

Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic.  But, yet,  not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).

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We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are.  But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.

The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared.  The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it. I cant really explain it and can only partially describe it, but I can always experience it, and return to it regularly.

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I  began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else.  They are actually about  my experiences, and  about the wish and struggle to share these.

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The mythogeographer ,  Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane .  These can be profane illuminations.

Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.

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Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation

Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as  harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.

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* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)

 

 

The beast inside..

IMG_20180302_142202058It seems the Beast has given us the chance to see something familiar anew.

I spent yesterday looking for falling icicle risk. There was  a sign about it outside the bike shop, with some cordoning off tape like something had ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

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I was hanging around for a bit whilst someone came to talk to me about panniers. Everyone looked up nervously , and there were (I checked) some actual fang-like icicles, distant, three storeys above us.

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I wandered the streets that afternoon looking up. At the surprising height of the tenements, and the intricacies of the roof architecture, until a couple of hours later the ice risk had dissolved.

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I like Walter Benjamin s phrase about ‘profane illuminations’, largely because I dont think I can really ever define what it means.

IMG_20180304_144152917But clearly sometimes they happen.

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Murder

IMG_20171126_150304741 I find myself in The Spen Valley , as in ‘Batley and Spen’. Like a lot of other people , I learnt last year was the name of a parliamentary constituency. I learnt it through the murder of its young Labour MP by a Neo-Nazi outside her constituency surgery just before the Brexit referendum. The ’cause’ for this appeared to be her liberal, pro-European views.

That and the alarming triumphalism and the ensuing spate of racist attacks that followed the referendum created a feeling of despair in me that I can still touch (like a grief). I decided I should  go and see where it happened. I thought I might make some kind of psychogeographic tribute, but I also wondered if I might just be rubbernecking.

There is CCTV footage on the internet of the perp. leaving the scene -eerily good enough for me to instantly recognise the street – and  I  suddenly found myself  parking outside that library , rails festooned with Tour de Yorkshire bikes. I expected to find … something, but what I found was a bewildering gap.

There was no recognition of what had happened there ( or at least no overt visible recognition).  I felt instantly uncomfortable in my quest and diverted (looked away).

Lunchtime. Lots of people going about their business. Toddlers and pensioners using the library, but a sense of ‘I Spy Stranger’, which felt clear and familiar.  I decided not to take any pictures, and to anonymise the town ( the ones you ll see here are from another small Pennine place nearby)

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I remembered that the killer was a local, but also that some of these locals would also be victims of the trauma that had interrupted their business, and might reasonably be wary of another unfocussed middle aged man stalking around the town centre.

There were visibly other things that people wanted visitors to associate with  – Joseph Priestley, the Brontes, the Luddites  were all old safe history.

Brexit divides have become unspeakable too – I stayed with friends that night who map carefully where their extended family have gone on this, and what they might comfortably (not) say in front of them.

One of the things that is hard to speak openly, is that the death of Jo Cox was the result of that fucking campaign. I can’t prove that of course. Or that the unstable loner might have received the encouragement to buy a sawn off shotgun in the same mysterious way he was able to shout the slogans used by a far right group who are currently infiltrating the British Army and organising terrorist activity in the North of England. But some circumstantial evidence is very strong.

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Something sickened in me when I heard the unfolding newscasts . I knew well before the confirmation what had happened . I also knew that a sane society would then have stopped the referendum in its tracks, but that would not happen. By finding out what that place was like I was hoping to travel backwards to a turning point – not to where a crime might not have happened  ( although I also wish that), but to one where a belief about the legitimacy of opposing views was accepted, and to the confirmation that this was no longer the case.

I come from another place  beginning with B. where a woman was murdered going about her daily business which had something to do with migration. While the murder happened amongst migrant agricultural workers and the response of the local community appeared benevolent, there is no doubt in my mind it was an accident waiting to happen, and that it stemmed in part from a willingness to overlook what desperate lives were going on around us.

And of course, no longer living there, I only have to think about that occasionally. The concern for those who still live there , as in B. , is to forget about it in a way which feels ethical and get on with their lives. They are less likely to want to be reminded that B2 is the place where the body-on-the-bus killing took place ( indeed if you google ‘murder, b2’  you will now find a reference to a detective fantasy on the local steam railway).

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I wander around B1 for a little while , trying to decide whether to see it as a crime scene or someone’s home town. An old folks home, a library , some take aways , a car park, an inexplicable one way system. You are unlikely to uproot if something horrible happens there to someone you may not even have heard of.  And the view point I have of B1 as a place of horror is also the one that will have been brought to town by the national press parachuting in in the days that follow.. If what happened here changed your view of your safety , or of the reliability of the people round you, you  wont casually  be making that public. Similarly if you see your hometown classed as a place of unstable rednecks any lingering reactionary sympathies are unlikely to dissolve.

If my view of the incitement of the press and little England xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign is accurate this accident waiting to happen could have happened  in a lot of anonymous town centres.

I wonder if I was ghoulish to want to see it. I don’t imagine its a tourism that is welcome , although it is well known along the routes of serial killers and celebrity deaths.

And while the widower and friends of Jo Cox wish us to continue to make the case for tolerance and connection  the real legacy of what happened is to make me and others want to recoil and mask our differences.

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